Bereavement and death: the last taboo?

Benjamin Franklin (1789) is reputed to have said that the only things certain in this world are death and taxes, however, bereavement and death remain elusive, if not taboo, subjects of conversation. Arguably in the 21st century within the United Kingdom (U.K.), against a backdrop of rising  mental health difficulties, adults aim to shelter children and young people  from topics that might cause stress, anxiety, or upset in a process that Pilcher (1995) calls ‘separateness’, a differentiation between childhood and adulthood. Thus, death is not talked about in a proactive manner but dealt with as a reactive response. Frequently, when a young person experiences loss, the first source approached is the internet.

Whilst the internet is an easy tool to utilise, it is also laden with outdated material which could be potentially counterproductive and even harmful to the young person’s grief process. Moreover, most bereavement support models tend to be adult directed interventions that are ‘top down’, and which contravene article 12 of the rights of the child enshrined in The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (1989), which advocates that children have the right to express opinions about matters which affect them. 

Bereavement affects all areas of a young person’s life and can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation. However, the quality of support available to them is dependent on the skillset, and value placed by, the person the information is shared with because bereavement policies and procedures are not in place. Generally, there tends to be emotional literacy sessions which teach responsibility for correcting inappropriate behaviour rather than programmes which allow exploration and understanding of all emotions, including grief.

Grieving needs to be acknowledged as a process that is a natural response to death. So how do professionals working with children and young people move beyond this taboo and build a compassionate environment that allows for natural responses to death, that of grief and mourning, to take place without being pathologized? Open dialogue about death and bereavement would break down some of the stigma, however as Bochner (2000) notes that “personal narratives are demeaned as some sort of victim art or confessional” (p. 271).

Being ‘allowed’ and given space to talk about grief and personal stories of loss can be utilised as a powerful mechanism for sensemaking, development of voice and to a certain extent, ownership of the process of grief, a point echoed by Giorgio (2009), who stresses that retelling the story enables some sense of order onto “the mess of trauma; we regain control over our lives by acknowledging and sharing with others our own truths” (p. 157).  Opening up dialogue on death allows for it to be taken out of the realms of taboo subject and to be thought of as a normal occurrence that is part of the life cycle of humans which in turn will lead to a clearer path to support for both individuals and professionals.

Blog post written by Dr Sukh Hamilton, Senior Lecturer in Childhood within the School of Education and Sociology (EDSOC), University of Portsmouth.

References

Bochner, A., P. (2000).  ‘Criteria against Ourselves’. Qualitative Inquiry, 6(2), pp. 266-272

Giorgio, G. (2009).  ‘Traumatic Truths and the Gift of Telling’. Qualitative Inquiry, 15(1) pp.149-167

Pilcher, J. (1995). ‘Growing Up and Growing Older: The Sociology of Age.’ Sociology Review 5. pp 8-13.

UNHCR. ‘The Rights of the Child.’ (1989). Retrieved from http://www.unicef.org.uk/UNICEFs-Work/UN-Convention/

Mental Health and Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers: Reflections from Brighton (UKCGE)

From the 16th – 17th May, the Higher Education community and beyond descended on the Jury’s Inn Waterfront in Brighton, for the 1st International Conference on the Mental Health and Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers. The conference was organised by United Kingdom Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE), in partnership with nature research, the University of Portsmouth, and the University of Sussex.

Across the two days, presentations and roundtable discussions showcasing the latest research and best practice within PGR mental health were delivered (the conference programme can be viewed here). Such presentations also included updates from a selection of the Office for Students Funded Catalyst projects, including the PGR Wellbeing project (led by the University of Portsmouth, in partnership with Leeds Beckett University, and co-presented by Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten and I).

Reflections

A range of quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods projects across the UK and internationally are exploring how PGR mental health can be supported – ranging from individual interventions, through to environment/cultural change at an Institutional level. Topics were wide-ranging and included use of pastoral tutors to support PGR mental health, exploring PGR perspectives of their study, how we can build communities, and on creating evidence-based wellbeing programmes.

A particularly poignant session from Day One (16th May) included the PGR panel in the morning, with Danielle Hayter and Mahmoud Elmarzouky from the University of Portsmouth, as well as Yasser Kosbar, and Dr Sophie Valeix from the University of Sussex, discussing their experiences of PGR study and what they felt needed to change. The discussion hit close to home for me, and for many within the room; reminding us all (if ever we needed it), what the focus should be on and why we were there.

There was agreement that best practice, particularly from the Catalyst projects, needs timely sharing across the sector; that work should also focus on solutions to the problems identified (i.e. what can we take back to our Institutions now); that there needs to be a cultural/environmental shift in Higher Education, and that PGRs should be involved in decision making (co-production).

With the recent announcement of further funded projects supporting a step change in mental health for all students (OfS Challenge Competition), student mental health more widely remains firmly in the public eye.

To read the conference updates and further learning, see #MHWBrighton on Twitter. The conference programme can be viewed here. The 2nd International Conference on the Mental Health and Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers will take place in November 2020, with conference location to be confirmed.

PGR Wellbeing team representatives (left to right): Dr Jane Creaton (PI), Mahmoud Elmarzouky (PGR), Danielle Hayter (PGR), Dr Rachel Moss (RA), Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten (Co-Investigator).

Blog post written by Dr Rachel Moss, Research Associate for the Office for Students funded PGR Wellbeing project, based within the School of Education and Sociology (EDSOC) at the University of Portsmouth.


University Mental Health Charter Roadshow

What is the Charter?

In 2018, former Universities Minister Sam Gyimah announced the development of a new University Mental Health Charter – an initiative led by Student Minds (supported by a grant from the Universities Partnership Programme Foundation) , and in partnership with the Office for Students , Department for Education , the National Union for Students , Universities UK , and AMOSSHE . The Charter will be a voluntary award, to recognise good practice in supporting and promoting mental health and wellbeing in students, as well as the wider University community (Charter FAQs can be viewed here).

How will the Charter research be conducted?

To develop the Charter, Student Minds have organised a road trip comprised of six events across the UK between March-April 2019. The roadshow aims to bring together students and University staff at all levels/areas (e.g., academics, professional staff etc.) to facilitate the co-production of the Charter. Each event consists of a number of focus groups, in addition to a keynote speaker.

Roadshow activities

I attended the event hosted by University Arts London on 27/03/19. The focus groups and activities were well organised, and delegates were presented with plenty of opportunity reflect, share their experiences (and those of their peers/colleagues), and connect with others. Student and staff were considered within discussions, to ensure that the Charter adopts a ‘whole University’ approach. Natasha Devon  – writer and mental health activist- was the keynote speaker for the roadshow, and spoke candidly and passionately (with humour thrown in) about her work, and how this could be applied within a Higher Education context.

Results from the roadshows will be analysed, and disseminated within the wider academic/policy community (e.g., via conferences, journal articles etc.). Moreover, the Charter will be a living document – updated where relevant to ensure it is still current to the Higher Education landscape.

Next steps

There is still opportunity to participate in the roadshows, with one date remaining:

Tuesday 2nd April – Cardiff Students’ Union 

Student Minds  are interested to hear from as many students and staff as possible, to help shape the Charter. The survey is available online until the 7th April.

To follow all tweets linked to the roadshow events and more, please see #UniMentalHealthCharter

Blog post written by Dr Rachel Moss (Twitter: @DrRMoss), Research Associate on the PGR Wellbeing project at the University of Portsmouth (School of Education and Sociology).