Supervision and effective social work practice

Professional supervision is central to effective social work. I think we can all agree on that. It plays an important role in the wider functioning of any children’s social care organisation. It is good to see the government setting out the role of practice supervisors in its knowledge and skills statements: not much to argue with there.

Children’s social work can be highly pressured and, at times, extremely stressful. So, whether you’re a frontline social worker, team manager or working with children in another social care setting, effective supervision helps you to do your job well.

Supervision involves talking through the impact the work has on you personally, as well as exploring decision-making. It is vital for practitioners’ well-being, professional development, and management oversight. Most importantly, supervision helps you to achieve the best possible outcomes for children.

What does good ‘reflective’ supervision look like?

For Ofsted, supervision is an important part of the conversations that inspectors have with frontline workers. Has it benefited an approach to a particular case? Has it helped professional development? Inspectors will always look for evidence of the quality and impact of any supervision.

As ever, there is no particular model that works best. In the areas that do supervision well, we see many components coming together to make sure that it works.

In these places, supervision takes place in an environment and relationship that feel safe, both to the supervisor and the supervisee. It is emotionally supportive, but challenges practitioners to truly reflect on their practice and on the needs of the children and families they are supporting.

Effective supervision relationships allow practitioners to develop personally and professionally through trust, honesty and empathy. When done well, supervision contributes to how staff performance is managed, and includes practice development and teaching and coaching.

Individual supervision can also be enhanced by (but not substituted for) group support and challenge. The right balance has to be struck between recording group and individual supervision.

How supervision ‘feels’ is important

Having been both supervisor and supervisee, I know that how supervision ‘feels’ is important! The following questions are a good guide:

  • Does the way I am supervised contribute to my job satisfaction and make me want to continue to work for this organisation?
  • Does it make me feel that my employer cares about me and my practice?
  • Does it increase my confidence, competence and critical thinking? Does it make me a more effective advocate for children?
  • Does it help me make better decisions for children? Am I able to change my direction of thinking when that is the right thing to do?

If the answer to these questions is yes, supervision is probably both effective and satisfying to supervisor and supervisee alike. Even more than that, it is likely to have a direct, positive impact on children and families.

Statutory children and family social work is all about managing risks and making good-quality decisions. To do this successfully, information about risks and how they are being managed needs to be shared between social workers and their managers at all levels.

In places that do it well, supervision happens in a dedicated space and time. This is helpful for practitioners because they know when to expect it and can rely on it. It forms a regular outlet to reflect on what has gone well and what has gone less well, and to learn from both.

Do inspectors expect every child’s experiences to be explored at every supervision session? No. Supervision should always be proportionate to risk: prioritising worker’s greatest worries, but over a number of sessions, making space for all children’s experiences to be discussed.

Supervision and case records

Sector colleagues often ask me what Ofsted is looking for on a good supervision record and on a child’s case record. There is, of course, some overlap between the two, and I do not want to suggest a prescriptive approach.

For some practitioners, supervision records will include getting the basics right or compliance with practice standards. For all, it should be an ambitious expectation for the best possible interventions and a place for professional dialogue and debate.

Well-recorded practitioner files will evidence how that person’s professional development has evolved through training, skills development and knowledge, and how they have applied this in their practice with children and families. It will explore responses to stress, personal ‘baggage’ and how these impact on the person’s ability to do their job.

When it comes to a child’s record, this has to serve many audiences – not least a manager’s scrutiny and a future social worker’s ability to pick up that child’s case. Will they understand how decisions were arrived at and the rationale for particular interventions? The decision-making resulting from supervision is clearly relevant here.

Critically, that same record will be used in future years, when the child, now an adult, seeks to understand their childhood and how they came to be brought up as and where they were.

Finally, let’s never lose sight of the context of children’s social work. Children and families have a right to receive help and care from properly qualified and experienced practitioners who are continually developing their practice. Effective supervision is a cornerstone of this development, while the way it is recorded is a means of evidencing that professionalism



Anxiety and depression: A young man’s experience

In this article I want to reflect on some of the influences and experiences that can impact on young men, that may well trigger feelings of anxiety and depression. I hope to reach out to any young man struggling with their feelings and ways of coping that may not be helping them. To highlight to them that they do not need to be struggling and that it is OK for them to ask for help, and that counselling can be a place where they can start to make changes to their lives.

What is it like being a young man?

Life can feel so much more confusing these days for many of us, yet what is it like to be a young man trying to negotiate your way in the world? What of the pressures to belong and be accepted by your peers, let alone to do well in education, to get all the qualifications you are told you need, have a well-paid job and be in a relationship. Then what of the perception that everybody else is doing well and are living a fun life on social media – yet what is the reality for you? Do you feel you need to show the world you are OK?; that you are coping and that everything you post online says you are fun to be with and are happy? I wonder how easy is it to keep leading this life?

Experiencing anxiety and depression

Then things might start to change; you begin to feel an anxiety that cripples you in social settings. To cope, you choose to use alcohol and perhaps drugs, however, this only seems to work initially then the anxiety returns, and it feels a spiral of lesser returns for more of a need for a chemical fix. You dare not tell your friends that you are feeling anxious, and instead make excuses to not go out socially, for fear of being anxious. Thus the anxiety feels it is getting bigger and has a hold over you. You now feel depressed because you cannot face your friends, and increasingly make excuses not to meet up with them, and stay at home playing video games.  

Another scenario could be that you become dependent on alcohol and/or drugs to be able to go out socially. Your need for alcohol and or drugs increases as you try to stop feeling anxious, however, you start to feel depressed, deeply unhappy and short of money. Your friends become increasingly concerned about you; they try to help you, yet get exacerbated by your continued behaviour and then distance themselves from you. You find you are left associating with young men who drink alcohol excessively and/or take more and more drugs.

Do either of these situations sound familiar to you, or someone you might know? While it could feel impossible to change how you live, I want to convey that while it might feel like you are stuck, it is possible to unstick yourself and to change how things are for you.

Is it OK to ask for help?

It may possibly feel this life can be tough to live, and that you should be strong enough to cope, yet I want you to consider how you judge yourself, and whether it is OK for you to ask for help? The first step to change how you feel and behave is through you wanting to help yourself. Then, asking for help would be the first and most important step you can take. Seeing a counsellor could be the best thing you could give yourself; a place where you can start to make sense of how you are feeling and to look at how your behaviour might not be helping you.

Deconstructing myths around masculinity

It can still be true for many men, that to be a man you feel you need to convey your manliness by showing the world you are tough physically and emotionally. Yet building a perfect body doesn’t make you immune to feelings, and you could be hiding how you feel because you fear what others might think of you. Well, let’s burst that balloon of perception; the greatest strength you can show to yourself and the world is that you are not afraid to talk about how you feel. Muscles can with exercise grow, and emotionally, with a willingness you might put into a gym workout, you can too become more emotionally able.

So let us turn this myth around that men need to be strong (and strength means not to show you are upset). Yes, you may have received messages growing up that men should not cry; well let me debunk that and consider it is a strength to show how you feel. To be healthy you need to be able to allow yourself to experience what you feel instead of denying your feelings. None of this is radical stuff, yet somehow old messages stick and possibly, how you might have experienced your own father’s behaviour could still be an influence – even if you have said to yourself many times; “I am going to be my own man”.

Wanting to change feelings and behaviours

Entering into a counsellor’s room could mean you are ready to consider your behaviour is no longer helping you, and are prepared to look at making changes. Then in some aspects, you are halfway to helping yourself, yet there is work to be done; and it does not have to be as hard as you might have imagined. Behind the anxiety you have felt, could be issues around how you have learnt to cope, and how you might have felt about yourself; but actually, sharing all this with a counsellor could feel like a personal liberation. It might not be rocket science to learn that if you do not reinforce feelings of anxiety through your behaviour, and instead start to face what is making you feel anxious, then your feelings of anxiety will begin to dissipate. And it could feel like a science you were not aware of before. You will need to continue not to fear your feelings and to stop avoiding situations that have made you feel anxious. With the help of your counsellor, you could learn how you can live more freely without feeling your anxiety has become you. Through all this work on helping yourself, you might surprise yourself and start to feel you actually like yourself.

This adage is as true now as it ever was; that a problem shared is a problem halved, so please do not suffer your feelings of anxiety and depression alone, there is help out there if you are prepared to ask for it.


Written by Lee Allen Registered Member MBACP

Verified counsellor or therapist

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Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

What is the purpose of Mental Health Awareness Week?

Today marks the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) – a week aimed at providing a valuable opportunity to talk openly about all aspects of mental health, with a specific focus on providing help and advice for those in need.

What is the theme for Mental Health Month 2021?

In 2021, we will continue with our theme of Tools 2 Thrive, providing practical tools that everyone can use to improve their mental health and increase their resiliency regardless of their personal situation.

When is Mental Health Week and awareness starting?

Mental Health Awareness Week runs from Monday 10 May to Sunday 16 May 2021. This year, join the fight for mental health. During this pandemic, millions of us have experienced a mental health problem, or seen a loved one struggle. And we’ve seen that the support we all need just isn’t out there.

More information and help click here


Health Information Champions

CAMHS Mentor Volunteer Coordinator Sinéad Brown talks about “Health Information Champions”, an exciting and innovative project that involved young people collaborating with award-winning artists Mark Chilvers and Paul McKenzie. The project was funded by NHS England and Improvement.

“Studies have shown that young people of all communities reported experiencing raised levels of stress and anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic. The ‘Life These Days: A Young Person’s Guide to Navigating COVID 19’ creative arts project was designed as part of a winter response to this finding and aimed to ease some of the burdens caused by the pandemic.

“A group of 15 young people came together to volunteer their time in a bid to facilitate a space where young people could access accurate and timely messages about COVID 19 and enable positive health experiences. Most of the young people involved in the project were current or former users of our Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

“This co-designed project included drama games and icebreakers, debates and discussions, homework challenges, and several mini-masterclass training sessions in photography and filmmaking. Each participant involved received a film-kit in the post, which caused much excitement and anticipation to kick start the project.

“The project spanned seven weeks, delivering over a dozen workshops and our end product was over 20 co-produced digital posters each with messages from young people, one 30-minute podcast and short filmView the Facebook album here.

“We closed the project with two celebration parties – one for each of the groups (aged 7-12 and 14-18 years), where young people dressed up, brought party snacks and danced and laughed as we brought the project to a close. Each young person was awarded with a certificate of achievement and an e-voucher to thank them for all of their hard work and effort in creating and sharing uplifting and educational messages for other young people.

“Projects like this remind us that despite the difficulties weighed down on us by COVID 19 communities can still come together to support, create, learn, share, and inspire. The flexibility of remote engagement allowed us to reach young people all over South London. Relatives of participants were able to take part, former service users were involved and even inpatients on acute wards could be part of the project.

“The young people said they felt the sessions helped them to cope with the pressures of COVID 19; they also said they felt that the workshops helped them to have good mental health. The project provided the young people with a place to feel heard and recognised, to have fun; but most importantly, it was a space for young people to connect. It didn’t stop there, parents reported feelings of respite from the project, and clinicians felt that it really acted as a supplement to therapeutic sessions of the service users they were supporting.

“Finally, it is absolutely the case that the impact and legacy of this project will continue far beyond the final delivery date. The young volunteers developed their confidence, built friendships, and nurtured a love for art. All things that truly are invaluable and immeasurable.

“The parent of a child aged seven who took part said: ‘He loved it so much. He got so much from it. It boosted his confidence. His self-esteem really improved and just blossomed over the time. After each group [session] he got more comfortable. It touched my heart to see how much impact you had on him.’

“Isobel Mdudu, our Trust’s Volunteer Services Manager, said: ‘The Health Information Champions project has been wonderful. A big thanks to Sinead who succeeded in making this happen in such a short space of time – an imaginative, creative and amazing way to involve young volunteers.’

Nurjahan Ali Arobi, NHS England and Improvement’s policy lead on youth volunteering, and the project’s lead commissioner said, ‘We are delighted by South London and Maudsley’s progress with Health Information Champions, with 96 percent of participants finding the sessions either calming, exciting or inspiring.’




The coronavirus pandemic has been incredibly tough for us all, and it has had a huge impact on our mental health. From lockdown, to furlough, to the loss of loved ones, we’ve all found ourselves under pressure or anxious at times.

The pandemic has affected us all in different ways, and it is only normal to feel uncertain about what the future holds.

The stress of this uncertainty and the new challenges we have had to face has had an impact on the mental health of many.

With limited contact with our friends, family, community and colleagues, taking care of our mental health and wellbeing has never been more important.

Support is available to help cope with the thoughts, feelings and issues that we are all facing.

#BeNicetoYourNoggin aims to spread awareness of the support is available in our community and how to access it, including a wide range of bereavement and crisis support services available in Havering.

The ‘noggins’ are here to help us express some of the mental health issues we all face, which can often feel dark and unmanageable. They are here to make these issues easier to understand, and to let you know that you are not alone in tackling them.

Visit their site for more information:


How the Stigma of Mental Health Is Spread by Mass Media

n the aftermath of an unconscionable act of random violence, many people are inclined to label the perpetrator “crazy.” Although the criminal may have a mental illness, automatically assigning the label “crazy” does a great disservice to people who live with mental illness every day.

In reality, somebody with mental illness is much more likely to be a victim—rather than a perpetrator—of violence.1 Calling a violent offender “crazy” spreads a dangerous stereotype and belies the complex relationship between criminality and mental illness.

The media teaches us about people with whom we do not routinely interact. This constant flow of data gives us incessant social cues about the nature of other groups of people—including which groups of people should be praised or scorned.

Media portrayals of those with mental illness often skew toward either stigmatization or trivialization. Consequently, all forms of media—including television, film, magazines, newspapers, and social media—have been criticized for disseminating negative stereotypes and inaccurate descriptions of those with mental illness.

What Is Stigmatization?

Stigma happens when some person is viewed as an “other.” A person who is considered an “other” is denied full social acceptance. Here is how one researcher, Brian Ahmedani, defined stigma in a 2011 paper entitled “Mental Health Stigma: Society, Individuals, and the Profession.”

“The most established definition regarding stigma is written by Erving Goffman (1963) in his seminal work: Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Goffman (1963) states that stigma is ‘an attribute that is deeply discrediting’ that reduces someone ‘from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one’ (p. 3). The stigmatized, thus, are perceived as having a ‘spoiled identity’ (Goffman, 1963, p. 3).

In the social work literature, Dudley (2000), working from Goffman’s initial conceptualization, defined stigma as stereotypes or negative views attributed to a person or groups of people when their characteristics or behaviors are viewed as different from or inferior to societal norms.”2

Stigmatization of Mental Illness By the Media

Stigmatization of mental illness in media is abundant. For example, certain mental health conditions such as schizophrenia are seen as being so disruptive that people with those conditions must be isolated from society.

The stigmatization of mental illness is so entwined with the media that researchers have used newspaper articles as a proxy metric for stigma in society.

Media accounts tend to focus on the individual with mental illness rather than framing mental illness as a societal issue. Consequently, media consumers are more likely to blame an individual for the illness.

People with mental illness can also suffer from overgeneralization in media portrayals. Every person with a specific mental health condition is expected to display the same characteristics or symptoms.

For instance, common depictions are that all people with depression are suicidal, and all people with schizophrenia hallucinate. In reality, only between 60% and 80% of people with schizophrenia experience auditory hallucinations. An even smaller number of people experience visual.

It’s also not uncommon for media portrayals to discount the fact that many people with mental illness don’t need to disclose their condition to everyone around

Instead, mental illness often goes unrecognized (whether by intention or not). The portrayals in the media tend to present situations where everyone in a character’s life knows about their mental illness.

Perhaps most concerning of all, the media often portrays mental illness as being untreatable or unrecoverable.

Trivialization of Mental Illness By the Media

The media can also trivialize mental illness, either by promoting mental illness as not being severe or being less severe than it really is.

For instance, many people with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa feel that their condition is made out to be less severe than it really is. This is in part because people with the condition portrayed in the media often minimize its seriousness and hide the severe consequences of the disease.

The truth is, the death rate for people with anorexia is high. In one oft-cited meta-analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2011, researchers analyzed 36 studies representing 17,272 individual patients with eating disorders and found that 755 of them died.3

Mental illness can also be oversimplified by the media. For instance, a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is often depicted as being overly concerned with cleanliness and perfectionism. However, the obsessive thoughts that drive their compulsions are overlooked or absent.

The symptoms of mental illness are sometimes portrayed as being beneficial. For example, in the popular television series Monk, the protagonist is a detective who has OCD. The fact that he pays close attention to detail helps him solve crimes and advance his career.

People who do not have disabilities can use media channels to mock people who do have disabilities, such as by appropriating mental-illness terminology. For instance, the hashtag OCD (#OCD) is commonly used on Twitter to describe one’s attention to cleanliness or organization.

Depictions of Schizophrenia in Film

Probably the most disparaging stigmatizations of mental illness in media lie in the film portrayals of antagonists with mental illness. In particular, when characters with schizophrenia are presented as “homicidal maniacs” in “slasher” or “psycho killer” movies.

These portrayals disseminate misinformation about the symptoms, causes, and treatment of schizophrenia as well as other forms of severe mental illness. What’s more, research has shown that popular movies have been shown to exert potent influences on attitude formation.

In a 2012 paper, “Portrayals of Schizophrenia by Entertainment Media: A Content Analysis of Contemporary Movies,” researchers analyzed 41 movies that had been released between 1990 and 2010 for depictions of schizophrenia.1

Based on the findings of the analysis, researchers drew several conclusions.

  • Most of the characters displayed “positive” symptoms of schizophrenia, with delusions being featured most frequently, followed by auditory and visual hallucinations.
  • The majority of characters displayed violent behavior toward themselves or others.
  • Nearly one-third of violent characters engaged in homicidal behavior.
  • About one-fourth of the characters committed suicide.
  • The cause of schizophrenia was infrequently noted. However, in about one-fourth of the movies it was implied that a traumatic life event for the character had been a significant causative factor.
  • Of the movies that alluded to or showed mental illness treatment, the most commonly portrayed were psychotropic medications.

These portrayals are not only incorrect but damaging—and for several reasons. The portrayals of schizophrenia often focus on symptoms such as visual hallucinations, bizarre delusions, and disorganized speech, and presented them as commonplace.

In reality, symptoms like decreased motivation, poverty of speech, and flat affect are more common.

Several movies have spread the false stereotype that people with schizophrenia are prone to violence and unpredictable behavior. Some films even presented people with schizophrenia as being “possessed.”

These violent stereotypes influence viewers and engender harsh negative attitudes toward people with mental illness.

24% of the characters with schizophrenia committed suicide. In fact, between 10% and 16% of people with schizophrenia commit suicide in the course of a lifetime.

Demographics is another aspect of mental illness that is often misrepresented by media portrayals of mental illness.

For example, characters with schizophrenia are frequently depicted as being white males, but schizophrenia disproportionately affects African Americans. It also affects men and women almost equally.

In a few movies, schizophrenia was depicted as being secondary to traumatic life events or curable by love—both of which are misrepresentations of the condition’s causes and treatment.

Positive Representation

Not all the information presented about schizophrenia was found to be incorrect, misleading, or stigmatizing.1 For example, in more than half of the movies that researchers analyzed, the use of psychiatric medications was depicted or alluded to.

Nearly half the characters with schizophrenia were depicted as being poor, which aligns with epidemiological data suggesting that schizophrenia is diagnosed less frequently in people of higher socioeconomic standing.

Even when some movies get it right, the negative media portrayals—especially those that are violent—of people with schizophrenia and other severe forms of mental illness still contribute to stigmatization, stereotyping, discrimination, and social rejection.

What Can Be Done?

We need a better understanding of how these messages are disseminated by the media before we can rectify them. There is limited research looking at how media promotes mental-illness stereotypes, stigmatization, and trivialization.

Nevertheless, certain suggestions have been made on how to improve the depiction of people with mental illness in the media, such as:

  • Analyzing mass-media production procedures to better understand the current practices, needs, values, and economic realities of screenwriters, producers, and journalists (for instance, understanding the balance between being newsworthy or emotionally arousing and verifiable).
  • Implementing a mental health short course when training journalists.
  • Including expert input from psychiatrists during a film’s production.
  • Preferring non-individualized descriptions of mental illness and instead focusing on the societal aspects.
  • Presenting mental illness only when relevant to the story.
  • Using mental-health terminology with precision, fairness, and expertise.

As individuals who consume copious amounts of mass media and engage with social media, the best thing that we can do is to stop using words like “crazy” and “deranged” in a derogatory or flippant fashion. We also need to remember that it’s best to avoid making a psychiatric diagnosis outside of a clinical setting.

Only a specialist can make a diagnosis of OCDdepressionbipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental health conditions. When we give someone the label of being mentally ill without clinical evidence, we hurt people who live with mental illness on a daily basis.

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS

Naveed Saleh, MD

Youth Unity

Researchers Reveal Kids Who Get More Hugs Have More Developed Brains

There’s nothing like the warmth and security of a loved one being enveloping you in their arms.  The simple act of giving and receiving genuine hugs can completely change your mood.  You feel loved, cared about, safe, and unique.  I’m not sure there is a single action that can replicate the feeling of giving and getting a hug.

It’s a good thing that giving is the same as receiving when it comes to hugs, right?  Now, science says you can be smarter for it. If you were about two feet long and weighed roughly 10 pounds, your brain would develop better.  Researchers reveal kids who get more hugs have more developed brains.


When we think about learning, we consider reading, studying, using our hands, calculations, and other processes.  We started, as babies, we began exploring by touching things.  Of our five senses, touch is the first to develop.  From this, a newborn baby must navigate their new world.

According to an article from Stanford’s Medicine, Dr. Susan Crowe, an obstetrician, and director at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, outlines the nine instinctual stages right after birth.

Birth cry, relaxation, awakening, activity, resting, ‘crawling’ (a shifting movement toward the breast), familiarization, suckling, and sleep.”

As soon as physically safe for both mother and baby, it’s time for skin-to-skin contact and guiding the baby toward breastfeeding.

Just the holding of the baby within the first hour, regardless of breastfeeding, can help in normalizing the baby’s body temperature, heartbeat, and pattern of breathing.  For many babies, it also decreases the amount of crying.  Simultaneously, the mother releases more relaxation hormones.  This also becomes the bonding time for mother and baby. Should the partner of the mother also hold the baby, it begins the bonding time for them as well.


Infant massages could be integrated into this bonding experience, as well.  The same article in Stanford’s Medicine notes a wide array of benefits. According to Maureen McCaffrey, a certified infant massage instructor at Packard’s Children Hospital, these benefits consist of:

  • Better sleep patterns for the baby
  • Baby appears more aware of being loved, secure, and accepted.
  • Improved digestion and bowel movements
  • Babies demonstrate more comfort by less fussy behavior
  • Weight gain improves
  • Mother and baby appear more relaxed
  • Neurological function in babies is improved

Another study done at the University of Washington aimed to locate the area of the brain in which a baby registers both “felt” touch and “observed touch.” This study proves babies can discern between an actual physical touch vs. an image of a hand touching another person.  The study found that by seven months old, a baby can not only understand the concept of their “self,” but also knows their body is separate from another person.


That knowledge is what established the foundation for mimicking others’ behavior as well as developing empathy.  The researchers discovered through specialized imaging that touch registers in the somatosensory cortex.  Depending upon if it was an actual touch, what part of the body the contact occurred in, or if it was an image, the location, and strength of the signal within the somatosensory cortex in which it was registered changed.

What was also fascinating was recognizing that the baby, before it can speak or know the words for body parts, already understands that their hand or foot moves similarly to another person’s.  Through imitating how the other person moves, the baby is also able to move.  It is this process which makes both imitations, and later, empathy, possible.

In a study of the opposing focus, researchers learned of detriment to children who don’t receive touch.  A report in Pediatrics Child Health, published in PMC, outlines the results of various studies, one of which was the result of providing touch to children who were previously deprived.  The study focused primarily on limb movement as a form of sensory stimulation.  They discovered that with 10 minutes a day of handling, over ten weeks, babies “spit up” less.Overthinkers, pay attention to this one! 90% 

The babies with 20 minutes of daily tactile stimulation, over ten weeks, increased in their developmental scores.  In the case of premature babies, stroking their limbs, and mild limb movement demonstrated weight gain, longer alertness, more mobility, better adaptation to repeated stimuli, and awareness of their bodies. After a year, they scored high on weight and growth and motor skills and had reduced mild neurological dysfunctional symptoms.


Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter produced in our hypothalamus and released from our pituitary gland.  Its levels increase during breastfeeding, orgasm, and hugs.

In regards to the effect on babies and their development, oxytocin encourages bonding between a mother and her baby.  This might explain why breastfeeding increases a woman’s hormone levels. It tends to foster feelings of trust, closeness in relationships, and maternal instinct or care.  Ironically, this hormone was discovered by scientists at the Weizman Institute to be the construction crew for its own future paths of blood vessels while in an embryonic brain.  Therefore, it facilitates the baby’s ability to produce oxytocin after the brain, his or her brain, fully develops.

While oxytocin has been nicknamed the “love hormone” or the “hug hormone,” it is more complicated than what was initially perceived.  It originally was recognized as the hormone that, when released in our blood, aids in uterine contractions during childbirth and induces labor.  Over time, it was discovered that it has a different reaction when it is released into the brain.  It then has variable effects on our cognitive, emotional, and social behavior.


In the journal Nature, an article was published with outlined various studies which have been performed attempting to single out the role of oxytocin on our behavior.

The study focused on the response of female mice, who had never birthed, toward crying babies.  Initially, the female mice had little to no reaction toward the babies.  They then injected the mice with oxytocin, and they began responding as a mother would.  Interestingly enough, before the injection, their brain neurons were a bit scattered and unfocused.

After the injection, the neurons came together in focus as a maternal mindset would. Additionally, researchers noted that oxytocin appeared to decrease specific neurons. While hearing the cries, the oxytocin enhanced the cries and made them more important.  The scientists theorize this may be related to why some mothers claim they can distinguish their baby’s cry from another.

Another study posted in the American Psychological Association tested women at various stages of their pregnancy – the first trimester, the third trimester, and the first month after birth.  What they discovered was that more women with high levels of oxytocin in the first trimester bonded better with their child.  The women who maintained high levels of oxytocin throughout the pregnancy and the month after developed a closer relationship with their children.  They tended toward singing special songs, using more personal, specific ways to feed or bathe their baby, etc.


The general understanding of how oxytocin affects our emotional and social behavior is a bit complex.  Essentially, if you are with an individual or group of individuals, and experience an interaction that triggers higher levels of oxytocin as a positive experience, then you will view those individuals as safe, trustworthy, and develop affection toward them.  Conversely, your brain will then see others who are different than those individuals as less credible, not safe, and you will be more guarded.  This is one method in which you establish your “tribe” of friends and establish who your family is.

Additionally, it may play a role in your social memory.  Through the release of oxytocin, your memory views a specific event more favorably than one where it didn’t release oxytocin.

What does this have to do with hugging your child and brain development?  Researchers continue to study oxytocin due to its very complex nature. However, it’s important we understand that how we perceive friends, family, and strangers and interact emotionally with each other is definitely a factor in our memory and behavior.  This holds true for a baby who is newly forming their understanding of the world based on how they interpret the actions of those around them.


Science may still be struggling to find the formula for why touch is so important and how our brain assimilates it in regard to our development, but most parents seem to understand it regardless.  The results from hugging a baby, a child, your teenager, or your spouse are ones most of us can recognize.



Coronavirus doctor’s diary: We’re getting self-harming 10-year-olds in A&E

Source: BBC

The pandemic has had a deep impact on children, who are arriving in A&E in greater numbers and at younger ages after self-harming or taking overdoses, writes Dr John Wright of Bradford Royal Infirmary.

Children are a lost tribe in the pandemic. While they remain (for the most part) perplexingly immune to the health consequences of Covid-19, their lives and daily routines have been turned upside down.

From surveys and interviews carried out for the Born in Bradford study, we know that they are anxious, isolated and bored, and we see the tip of this iceberg of mental ill health in the hospital.

Children in mental health crisis used to be brought to A&E about twice a week. Since the summer it’s been more like once or twice a day. Some as young as 10 have cut themselves, taken overdoses, or tried to asphyxiate themselves.

There was even one child aged eight.

Lockdown “massively exacerbates any pre-existing mental health issues – fears, anxieties, feelings of disconnection and isolation,” says A&E consultant Dave Greenhorn.

While Bradford has been in lockdown longer than some other parts of the country, there is no reason to believe this is a local problem. Dave says fellow A&E consultants he’s spoken to in Scotland, Portsmouth and Northern Ireland all report a significant increase in mental health attendances – among all age groups, children as well as adults.

Self-harming “used to be the mind-set of older teenagers but we are seeing much younger children doing this now” says Ruth Tolley, a matron on the paediatric ward where children are taken if it is not safe for them to return home.

It may then take the combined efforts of several nurses to prevent further self-harm on the ward.

Eating disorders are also on the rise, says paediatrician Helen Jepp. So are overdoses – where children take their parents’ medication, or their own – and cases where children rush out of the house and behave recklessly or dangerously on the street.

A child psychiatrist who works with Bradford’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) says the caseload fell at the start of the pandemic then returned to normal levels. For him what’s new is not the quantity but the severity of the work. “We have been seeing more intense distress,” he says. “Young people are in a worse state than usual.”

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Consultant Dave Greenhorn describes a recent evening in A&E. It’s a busy one – there are 94 people in the department, including a pale-looking teenage boy, lying quietly in a cubicle.

Dave asks if he’s OK, but there is no answer and no eye contact.

The notes show that the boy has attended the Emergency Department every other day for two weeks. Before now he has taken small overdoses and told staff he wants to die. He has a child and adolescent psychiatrist and support worker but there is no firm diagnosis of mental illness.

One of the problems is that lockdown has prevented everyone from accessing their own safety valves. The boy has previously mentioned that he misses going out with his friends. Now he’s stuck at home, and so are other members of his family. Unable to get away for a few hours peace, the mum says she’s at the end of her tether and can’t deal with her son at home on this particular night.

Dave’s attempts to coax the boy to talk to him are unsuccessful, so he makes sure the youngster has some juice and a sandwich and asks the nurses to keep trying to get him to engage when they have a minute – though they rarely do.

On previous admissions to the paediatric ward the boy has been hard to look after, so it’s been agreed he shouldn’t be sent there, but he doesn’t want to go to an adult ward. In the end he spends the night in A&E.

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The pandemic has underlined for all to see just how important school is for children. Education is only part of it. There is also the social life, and children benefit from routine, boundaries and adult authority figures outside the home.

Teachers are also experts at spotting problems such as anxiety and self-harm that has taken place at home. A lot of referrals would normally arise in this way.

For older children, school is the framework that will enable them to reach university or employment, and some struggle when it appears to give way.

Seema [not her real name] attempted suicide and started self-harming when exams were cancelled last summer.

“We tried very hard for our exams – you’re taught that your entire future revolves around these exams, but that crumbles right in front of you and it’s really shocking. It has a huge impact,” she says.

“I felt like stabbing myself… I was in a constant state of anxiety.”

Now 17, she is doing a lot better, though she still misses contact with teachers and friends, and would like schools to organise online groups for students to socialise, not just meet for lessons.

Her family hasn’t been able to understand her problem, but she has now been getting help.

One crucial beneficial change that has come out of this epidemic of mental ill-health is that professionals from all the different agencies in Bradford have come together to support the children in their time of crisis.

Gone are the delays in referrals between different teams – the health service and social services are acting as one.

“Covid has brought services closer together,” says paediatric ward matron Ruth Tolley. “We needed an urgent meeting with the safeguarding team and various other agencies and we were able to pull that meeting together in two hours – getting people together and getting a plan, that is really positive.”

Paediatrician Helen Jepps agrees. She got a call about a teenager one morning, logged on and saw that a number of teams were already discussing the case – social workers, Camhs and voluntary organisations. “It feels a real privilege at the moment to have that close contact,” she says.

But this is little consolation for the damage that is being done to children’s lives.

The past 10 months of lockdown and school closures may have seemed unending for parents, but for a 10-year-old it will have felt like a lifetime. Their youth is being stolen from them.

John Wright

Prof John Wright, a doctor and epidemiologist, is head of the Bradford Institute for Health Research, and a veteran of cholera, HIV and Ebola epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa. He is writing this diary for BBC News and recording from the hospital wards for BBC Radio.