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Whilst the internet is an easy tool to utilise, it is also laden with outdated material which could be potentially counterproductive and even harmful to the young person’s grief process.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/

Self care for Schools

Increased Expectations

With the start of the new academic year it has become clear that expectations and demands placed on schools in terms of mental health support have increased. More responsibility is being placed on schools to deal with mental health issues faced by their pupils. This has been justified by claims that mental health training for teachers will be provided but as demonstrated by the headteachers march on Friday 28th September 2018, schools are struggling enough already to provide the resources their children and staff need.

Mental Health First Aid Training

Many are praising the provision of Mental health first aid training in schools but is this really an appropriate solution? Placing more responsibility on schools due to a lack of resources in the NHS when schools are already facing a fall in their own resources doesn’t bode well the for future of our children. Dr Wendy Sim’s Schouten’s Conversation article discusses the implications that this might have long-term.

A GCSE in Wellbeing

The impact that this has on teachers and their own mental health is apparent. Teachers have more than enough to cope with already with increased demands placed upon them and many teachers report working in excess of fifty hours per week. So, placing the responsibility of pupils’ mental health on them in addition and justifying this by saying they have been provided training is perhaps a burden they shouldn’t have to bear.

Teachers’ mental health is paramount. If they do not have good mental health themselves this will reflect on their pupils. Many teachers have expressed concern that by not looking after their own mental health, they are putting their pupils’ progress at risk, with many claiming,

“I just want to get through the day,”

And others stating that they find it difficult to care as much when they are feeling depressed themselves or that the impact this has on their concentration and fatigue affects their teaching. #perhaps to support the mental health of pupils’ it is time for teachers to lead by example and attend wellbeing workshops to then provide a GCSE in Wellbeing.

Kids in Crisis

On Monday 24th September BBC One Panorama aired ‘Kids in Crisis’ which looked at the harsh reality of the mental health system in Britain today and the impact that long waits and high thresholds have on our children with some parents being told their child would have to attempt suicide before they would be seen. This is not in line with the ‘prevention and early intervention’ policy we have been led to believe as touted in the governments February 2018 paper, Looking to the Future – Improving Mental Health Outcomes for Children and Young People.

For the Future

The Mental Health First Aid England’s Supporting Organisation is Family Links, who strive to achieve mental and emotional wellbeing of families through the provision of support programmes for parents, children and schools. They strive for a family life utopia of balance between everyone who is involved with family life. Through the provision of education and training it is hope that this can be achieved. However, the key message here is to look at the provision and utilisation of resources. With troubling times ahead. Perhaps the government needs a new strategy.

 

Blog post written by Kayleigh Rivett, Support Officer (Themes) for the Research and Innovation Services at the University of Portsmouth (@uopresearch).

 

Launch of UK Mental Health Networks

On the 6th September, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced the creation of eight new national mental health networks, funded by UKRI and the Government.

What do the new mental health networks address?

The networks are a collaborative effort between charities, researchers, as well as a wide variety of other organisations (e.g., regional and national arts councils) across the UK. The networks aim to understand the causes and development of mental health problems, as well as to explore new treatment options.

What are the research topics that the networks will focus on?

The research topics that the networks address are far reaching, and range from youth and student mental health, to addressing health inequalities in people with severe mental health problems. The eight mental health networks are as follows:

  • The Emerging Minds: Action for Child Mental Health network (led by Professor Cathy Creswell , University of Reading) will explore ways in which children, young people, and their families can experience the benefits of advances in research.
  • The ‘Closing the Gap’ Network+ (led by Professor Simon Gilbody,  University of York) to understand and close the life expectancy gap between those who do and do not have severe mental health problems.
  • The Loneliness and social isolation in mental health network (led by Professor Sonia Johnson, UCL) aims to reduce loneliness and social isolation in those with mental health problems.
  • The MARCH: Social, Cultural and Community Assets for Mental Health network (led by Dr Daisy Fancourt, UCL) aims to understand how social, cultural and community factors can improve and support mental health and wellbeing, as well as preventing problems from occurring in future.
  • The SMARtEN: Student Mental Health Research Network (led by Dr Nicola Byrom, King’s College London) aims to provide data on the state of mental wellbeing in students in higher education, as well as to support them.
  • The Nurture Network: Promoting Young People’s Mental Health in a Digital World (led by Professor Gordon Harold, University of Sussex) aims to explore the effect of digital technology on the mental health of children and young people, as well as with their interactions with their family, school, and peers.
  • The Transdisciplinary Research for the Improvement of Youth Mental Public Health (TRIUMPH) network (led by Professor Lisa McDaid, University of Glasgow) aims to explore ways to improve the mental health and wellbeing of young people, especially those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged.
  • The Violence, Abuse and Mental Health: Opportunities for Change network (led by Professor Louise Howard and Dr Sian Oram, Kings College London) aims to explore how domestic and sexual violence, as well as abuse, impacts mental health and wellbeing, and to assess interventions.

Blog post written by Dr Rachel Moss, Research Assistant (University of Portsmouth) for the Office for Students postgraduate research student wellbeing project.