I work in private practice in east London and I’m also employed as the student counsellor at a small college in the same area, with an ethnically diverse student population. In my 10 years of working in this area, I would be hard pressed to find among those coming for counselling someone who hasn’t witnessed or doesn’t know of another young person who has been stabbed or shot, or who has not themselves been attacked.

This scourge is affecting our young people across communities of all ethnicities. However, often those involved are black. Here, I describe how it affects the community of a small college in east London, and how the impact plays out across a wider demographic.

It’s rare that a young person comes to me for counselling as a direct result of a knife incident; knife crime has become so much the norm for them. Usually they come with problems at home and with family, a bereavement of a family member, relationship problems, or with anxiety, depression or psychosis.

As a counsellor, it is harrowing to hear daily on the news these stories of deaths and injuries from knife attacks and know that the reports and statistics are the reality for many of our young people. Added to this recipe is the ingredient of social media. News of these attacks circulates at such speed across London boroughs that, within moments of one incident occurring, a deep sense of despondency can be felt, thick in the air.

It is also rare for a young person to identify themselves as being part of a gang. Some will acknowledge having old school friends who are now in gangs, or may have relatives who are known to be gang members. The challenge for most is how they distance themselves from these old friends and family.

Key to working with this client group is gaining their trust – no easy feat with a group of young people who have learnt not to trust anyone. Many come with past experiences when talking to someone in authority has resulted in involvement with social services or the police. Rationally, they understand the concept of counselling as a safe, confidential space; many already know of it from secondary school and are quite savvy about safeguarding. However, culturally it is ingrained that you don’t tell adults what is going on, for fear of betraying your peers, and you don’t tell your peers you’re going to a counsellor either, in case you are labelled ‘mad’.

I’ve worked hard with the pastoral care team to reduce this stigma of speaking to the counsellor. My strategy is to be visible and accessible outside the counselling room. In any other setting, I’d observe stricter boundaries. My hope is that, by avoiding being seen as a mysterious person located at the end of a dark and dusty corridor, I can make speaking to the college counsellor as normal an experience as having a one-to-one session with your academic tutor.

The challenge is finding ways to invite my clients to be vulnerable in the counselling space, and for them to feel able to accept the invitation. If they choose to continue the sessions, and if I’m patient and lucky, maybe they will trust me enough to let me into their world.

It can be quite distressing to listen to their stories. The support of a good supervisor cannot be underestimated, and liaison with college staff is essential for safeguarding. It can be a tricky balancing act of non-judgement, acceptance and tentative challenging of their perception that what is happening in their lives is all they have to look forward to. It’s hard to offer hope when at times I struggle to believe myself that things can get better.

I observe the reticence in my clients as they talk about how these violent incidents affect them. The common narrative is that no one understands, no one cares and seemingly nothing is being done to protect them in this never-ending nightmare. They communicate an overwhelming sense of apathy as they describe the daily dose of stories of stabbings and shootings collected via social media or from peers. For them, it’s normal to be chased by a group as they are on their way to visit family in another part of town, or because they’ve looked at someone in the ‘wrong’ way. They talk casually about having to duck under the seat on the bus on their way into college when they pass through a postcode where they don’t live. A 13-year-old girl will mention in passing that she has tried numerous times to tell her friend not to carry a knife.

As I write, I am angry that our young people are being robbed of their childhood and are becoming desensitised to violence. It feels as if it’s everywhere. Discussions in my peer supervision group help me recognise that working in this environment for a prolonged period can warp my view.

Overall, there is a prevailing sense of mistrust and fear. I am acutely aware that my own ethnicity and background may serve as a bridge, if only slightly, in helping some to open up, but I think showing interest in what it means to be them is even more important when building a therapeutic relationship. It is clear that many do not have anyone with whom they can share how they feel about these terrible experiences. I can sense their relief when they find they can talk to me. Others have developed a protective numbness that masks the way things are.

Jay

Jay is 17 and from a black African background. He barges through the door, announces he is here for his appointment and starts pacing round the room. I work hard to bracket my own assumptions. ‘Oh good! Sit down, Jay.’

Jay has a strong, formidable presence and could easily pass for someone much older. He tells me this happens a lot, and that it works in his favour with older girlfriends. I’m all too aware that his bravado is a masquerade – he has had to be tough his whole life. The only boy in the family, he lives with his parents and older sisters in a part of south London that is notorious for violent attacks, mainly among young black boys. His parents are supportive and keen for him to do well on his course. He wants to do well too, especially since secondary school was not a success for him. Both his sisters excelled at school and are now thriving at university. There is a huge pressure on children in African households to succeed academically. It’s difficult for Jay to focus on course work when it’s so ‘hectic on road’, he tells me. ‘What is hectic?’ I ask, deliberately inviting him to update me.

As we progress with the sessions, Jay often ‘updates’ me; he enjoys it. Someone is listening; he is being heard. He doesn’t like to talk much with his friends about what is going on; no one likes to do that when you’re just hanging out. You just want to have distractions from it all and have fun. His smile reveals a sweetness about him.

‘Hey, Miss! You just don’t know what’s going on, do you?!’ With this group, I make deliberate use of self-disclosure and empathy: ‘No I don’t. I don’t know what goes on in South,’ I admit. ‘It sounds grim.’

He tells me that one friend died from being stabbed last year, and two others died the previous year, also from stabbings. I notice how his voice softens as he talks about his friends. They would play together as kids, although not so much as they got older. He tells me that, having grown up in this area, he knows people who are now in gangs. Some were his friends at primary school. It seems there are not many options: either you hang out with a particular group or you become a target. He tells me he’s not in a gang, and I say it must be quite difficult for him, especially given his size and build; that there is an expectation on him to step up and take charge in potentially dangerous situations. He seems surprised that I am able to grasp this, and responds with a deep sigh, lowering his gaze: ‘They all come to me, Miss, but I’m not into all that. I just wanna keep my head down. It’s getting too serious.’ I respond that it must be hard for him, living right there, in the heart of it all.

A few sessions in, Jay lets me know that the reports on the news are only half the story. He tells me about the unreported stories of those who are attacked and end up in hospital, who may die later as a result of their injuries, and those who don’t go to the police. He talks about this in a matter-of-fact way, as he does about his anxiety and his difficulty sleeping, which he puts down to not getting on with his girlfriend and the strained relationship with his father.

Jay attends sessions regularly. He reveals that, when he was much younger, he carried a knife, but wants me to know he didn’t hurt anyone. He was being threatened over some ‘beef’ that had been going on for a long time, that had started with his cousins and now he doesn’t know the history or even why it continues. He had spotted two of the boys the other day when he was on his way to buy milk from the corner shop for his mum, and thought something was about to go down. Nothing happened and he jokes that the milk was safely delivered. He expresses a helplessness in trying to resolve these arguments and exasperation in having always to be on the alert.

I mirror the frustration Jay feels. He is trying to focus on his coursework, as he sees success in college as giving him a chance to move away. He hopes to go on to university and later travel, maybe to the US. But there are constant reminders of what is currently happening on the streets; he has to stay alive along this timeline, past the treacherous zone, which he says starts at age 13 and goes on to maybe 22, when you are no longer the hunted.

The fear is constantly running in the background. Jay and his peers try to play it down, but it seeps through into their lives, both boys and girls: ‘Am I going to make it? Are my friends, cousins, siblings, boyfriend, girlfriend going to make it? Am I next?’

I also wonder who is next, and feel guilty at my relief when I hear that the latest victim on the news isn’t one our students. Then, one day, after half-term, we learn that Kieron has been killed in a knife attack. Kieron was one of ours. His death triggers more disruption to young people who already experience enough chaos in their lives. I have never experienced this level of mass grieving. It is a small comfort to see how students gain strength from supporting each other and grow confident in expressing themselves about this issue.

Those who are committing these acts of violence aren’t the ones who are seeking counselling for support. How would they access it anyway? Who would they trust?

Michael

I meet Michael. His friend was shot about a month before. He tells me he witnessed the shooting and that he can still hear the ringing in his ears. He looks frail and has signs of what looks like PTSD. He is shaking as his tutor introduces him to me. I invite him to sit down. I fight the urge to ask the many questions whizzing around in my mind. I don’t want our first meeting to feel like yet another interrogation. How did we as a society get to this state where a 17-year-old can see their friend being shot and be expected to just carry on? I bracket my own shock, despair and anger as I struggle to maintain composure. I am worried, too, that I will have to report what he tells me as a safeguarding concern and risk destroying the chance to build the relationship before it has even begun. I set aside these worries and distractions for another time; for now, just ‘being with’ my client is enough. He leaves with a few coping strategies but I’m not surprised when he doesn’t return for the next session. I knew it was too soon.

The following term, Michael is referred to me once more. I bump into him at break time and remind him of the appointment. He is much more talkative than when we first met. I reflect that he looks different and he acknowledges he is feeling stronger, although he is still hearing the ringing in his ears and having flashbacks. He doesn’t talk about the event itself and, as I feel confident and relaxed that this is in the hands of the child protection team, our session can focus on coping. But I can’t ignore the times when he pauses and leaves out tiny details about where he was or who he was with. I gently remind him that he doesn’t have to talk about anything he doesn’t want to.

I was surprised when Michael continued with the sessions. It was brilliant to see the small changes in him as he opened up about his hopes for the future and his plans for his 18th birthday. One day, just before half-term break, he came to my room unexpectedly, as he wasn’t booked for a session. He didn’t want to sit down, he wasn’t staying, he just wanted to thank me. He was feeling so much better; he had been to the doctors and he was also starting to get some sleep, all because of the sessions, he thought. We agreed to meet after half-term.

During half-term, Michael was murdered by a gang in a knife attack and I was faced with the anger and sadness of the students once more. Surely, it’s not right that you get used to this? I was struck by the cultural cross-section of friends and tutors affected by Michael’s death. They too recognised that Michael was kind and caring. He was trying – trying to get away from that kind of life. It’s clear to me that this is not a black issue at all, but one that is affecting a generation of young people, especially the vulnerable.

Later, I visited Michael’s grave with a few of his classmates. Their sentiments echoed mine: frustration with the senselessness of it all. I’m left feeling powerless, as I don’t have the answers. How do we tackle this epidemic? I can only hold on to the gift of Michael’s expression of gratitude, and accept that, in his short life, he was able to take something from our sessions.

Natalie Bailey is a counsellor and supervisor working with young people and adults in private practice, a part-time lecturer on a counselling and coaching course at the University of East London, and a counsellor at a creative and media college in London. She is also a trustee on the BACP Board of Governors.