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We need to talk about bereavement. Can Mental Health Support Teams in schools help?

Rachel Bundock, Compass CEO

Published on: July 29, 2021

By Rachel Bundock, Chief Executive of the Compass health and wellbeing charity.

Children and families in Barnsley will be able to get better access to bereavement counselling from next month.

Our Compass health and wellbeing charity is launching what is a unique project, funded by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, beginning on 2nd August.

As a society, we have come a long way over the last few years towards getting rid of the stigma around mental health; ‘normalising it’ within our everyday conversations.

Even so, there still remains a seemingly unshakeable taboo around death and bereavement and particularly, suicide.

Bereaved people can become isolated and disconnected

Many people, who see their colleagues, friends and family suffer in silence, don’t reach out because of the fear of saying the wrong thing. Or of making things worse. It’s not because they don’t care.

The bereaved person may themselves worry they won’t find the right words to respond to a well-meaning enquiry. This may cause a new layer of trauma as they wonder whether someone is going to ask how they are or will just walk on by.

So often, it’s simply not talked about, or it’s glossed over to avoid anyone feeling uncomfortable.

This, in turn, can mean people suffering from bereavement become isolated, disconnected from friends or family, or left feeling hurt and abandoned by people they trusted and hoped would support them.

And that becomes more acute when normal life resumes.

I am speaking from my own experience when I say the bereaved can be left feeling stuck, angry and overwhelmed with the reality of having to move on with life, with so much left unsaid by the people around them.

Being present can be enough

It’s positively strange, really, that in a society where births, deaths and marriages and civil partnerships are a natural part of our life cycle, that we still struggle to talk about death, openly.

It will happen to us all, but we seem to struggle to find the right language and worry about doing more harm than good. When simply being present can often be enough to show your support and provide comfort.

The situation is amplified when we think about grief experienced by children and young people.

It needs to be addressed. It’s critical that families facing such terrible loss have positive support structures.  Everyone can help. They can draw from their own experience. They can be more attuned to people around them who may be suffering. And they can be given skills and tools to feel confident and able to provide their best support.

Both my parents died when I was in my 20s

What they do doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be genuine.

Both of my parents died when I was a young adult in my 20s and the impact it had on me, my family and friends was life changing.

Even 25 years and three rounds of counselling doesn’t make me miss them any less or my trauma and grief any less profound. I lost friends and family as a consequence and looking back, at times, I felt very lonely and isolated, with very few people to talk to. I certainly didn’t have people my own age who I could share my experiences with.

I was lucky. I found my own ways to cope but that may not be the case for everyone.

I cannot imagine what it must be like for children of school age; and the lasting effect it can have.

The need to provide support for children, young people and families affected by death and bereavement must be a critical part of the mental health support that’s available to everyone, irrespective of age, postcode or cause of death. Every death, whether sudden or expected, can be traumatic, and its lasting impact detrimental to the mental health of those left behind.

What’s striking is that as a society and in terms of the support services commissioned, we haven’t progressed as much as I would have expected.

Twenty five years after I was bereaved, it’s frustrating and saddening that so many grieving people today still find themselves struggling on alone, or have to find the money to pay for support.

Not everyone can afford to pay. Similarly, not all charities who support the bereaved can provide their services free of charge, due to lack of core long term funding.

Bereavement support is vital and yet it still remains under funded and is often missed out of locally commissioned public health services; areas rely on the incredible work of local charities and peer support groups.

Specialist support is needed

The pandemic has brought the subject of death, bereavement and loss to the fore with huge numbers of children and their families affected.

Specialist support is needed to skill up professionals across health, education and social care to better support families, particularly children and young people who have lost a parent or carer and don’t yet have the resilience and support structures in place to deal with their grief.

The continuing commitment to and funding of Mental Health Support Teams in schools and colleges across the country is hugely important. But as we build a children and young peoples’ mental health workforce that can respond to mental health needs early, we need to think about where bereavement support fits in; what type of support, by whom and how. Because without it, many children and families will continue to be significantly affected, and this could have such a detrimental effect on their lives, their mental health, their academic attainment and their future aspirations.

I believe we have a real opportunity as we develop children and families’ Mental Health Support Teams in education settings, to think about how bereavement support is incorporated within its core offer.

Our pilot service in Barnsley will see a bereavement counsellor form part of our Mental Health Support Team; this is an important step in the right direction, that ensures we make best use of available commissioned services to identify gaps in support and find the right solution to ensure no bereaved child or family goes without early help and support.

Read our news story about the bereavement service in Barnsley schools

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