What is a public health approach to tackling violence?


I joined Croydon Council this August as one of London’s first directors tasked with reducing violence. Croydon has adopted a public health approach to tackling violence and created a specific team in the council to support the work.

One of the things that drew me to Croydon was the very clear recognition that the council can’t solve this problem on its own. And while we need to work closely with the police and health services, we also need to be looking to our communities, businesses and voluntary sector organisations. Everyone has a part to play.

There’s a lot of talk about “taking a public health” approach to violence. But lots of people are unsure about what it means. The way I explain it is to compare it literally to a disease, like flu or measles.

When you are sick, you’ll treat the symptoms and hopefully stay off work or school to stop it spreading. But there might also be things that you and others do to stop you getting sick in the first place – most obviously vaccines and good hygiene, like washing your hands and covering your mouth if you cough or sneeze.

Because we now understand that violence can cause other episodes of violence we can think about a stabbing or domestic violence, or other types of violence in the same way we think about disease. If a violent incident happens we help the victim of that violence but we also try to stop it spreading. That might be disrupting retaliation, or stopping someone who’s been violent to their partner doing it again.

Just like a disease there are also actions we can take that will stop some violence happening in the first place. Teenagers and young adults who become involved in violence have often experienced trauma at home, like witnessing domestic abuse or having a parent or carer with mental health or substance misuse problems. If we can support people to improve children’s early lives and help children who face challenges to become more resilient then we will likely reduce the number of young people who get involved in violence but also who are criminally exploited too.

This sounds hard, and some of it is, but at a community level, we can all look out for our neighbours. And some of us might be able to do more. Volunteer to mentor a young person. Donate to a domestic violence charity. We’ve had ideas from businesses to provide “safe havens” and from barbers and hairdressers to offer low level counselling to clients. There will be lots more ideas that might help. You know, because you know Croydon best.

We’ve already started work to build on what’s good here. A working group from across the public and voluntary sectors is exploring how we become a “trauma informed borough”, in the council we’re working to improve domestic abuse awareness and practice by swapping staff between our children’s services and our domestic abuse services, and we’ve already secured funds from the Greater London Authority to work on a range of projects with young people at risk of violence and criminal exploitation. But there’s so much more to do.

We’re working towards building a network across Croydon, of anyone who wants to be involved, that helps us, and other public services work in partnership with communities to really tackle the underlying root causes of violence as well as deal with violent incidents when they happen. If you want to get involved, get in touch and let us know what you think through the Big Conversation.

Sarah Hayward

Sarah Hayward

Director Violence Reduction Network, Croydon Council


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