Support for Bereaved Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:54 pm on 14 September 2023.

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Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 2:54, 14 September 2023

I thank Christine Jardine for securing this incredibly challenging debate. I know she has worked hard to raise this issue, both here in this Chamber and prior to that in Westminster Hall. I pay tribute to her for her work to ensure that this matter gets the time it deserves in this place. She made an incredibly moving opening speech.

I also thank all those who have contributed to this debate, because it is not easy to share personal experiences and insights on this issue. My hon. Friend Taiwo Owatemi made a most powerful speech; I know it will have resonated with many people, and sharing such a personal story will have the impact of making this situation better for somebody else who is facing it. I pay tribute to her for the incredible speech that she made. I also pay tribute to Jim Shannon, who brought his perspective and his insights into this important issue from his many years of experience speaking in this House.

Bereavement is an experience that is difficult for anyone, but for a child the impact truly is profound. We know and we have heard in this debate the experiences of how that impact can stay with a young person for many, many years after their bereavement. The problem is that we do not even know how many children are currently living with bereavement across the UK. Estimated figures from the Childhood Bereavement Network—we have already heard them in this debate, because they are some of the only figures we have—suggest that each year 26,900 parents die, impacting around 46,300 children under 17. That is happening every year.

Without any further data, we have no way of knowing how many more might be impacted by the death of a close relative. The charity Winston’s Wish has provided the figure that one in 29 children are affected by the loss of a parent or sibling. That could be one in every classroom, with schoolteachers and support staff potentially completely unaware of that child’s loss. For that reason, while schools may name bereavement as a key concern that they would like more support to deal with, the support they can give is currently limited by lack of time and lack of skills among an already stretched school staff.

Schools need the tools to help grieving children. However, between the pandemic and disruption to education, crumbling infrastructure, the cost of living crisis and budget restrictions, school staff increasingly find it a challenge to direct their resources to addressing the issues that young people face. It is the Government’s role to break down those barriers to achievement, yet sometimes it feels as if the barriers are just being built higher for some of our young people.

Teachers are not trained mental health staff, but are often expected to fill that role, because they are often the ones who children turn to, if they turn to anyone at all. Yet when teachers look for support with helping that young person, too often it is not there. We should pay tribute to teachers who go above and beyond their role in supporting young people who they know are suffering bereavement.

While of course young people should feel able to share with their teachers the fact that they are struggling with personal loss, children who are suffering from bereavement need professional mental health support. Every child should have access to that, but we just know that that is not currently the case. Many schools do not have trained mental health resources, and accessing child and adolescent mental health services can take years before a child can even get an appointment, never mind be seen. Far too often, children reach crisis point before any help is found.

During that crucial part of a young person’s life, they are missing out on education due to a lack of support and missing out on their development. Older children may be taking on the role of supporting their younger siblings in dealing with that bereavement, putting to one side their own bereavement, and their education as well. Every young person deserves the tools they need to take advantage of the opportunities that school provides, yet for far too many young people those essential mental health services simply are not there.

In 2021 and 2022, patients seeking mental health treatment spent more than 5.4 million hours waiting in A&E—waiting rather than getting the support they need. The Government’s scrapping of the 10-year mental health plan has left 1.6 million stuck on waiting lists for mental health treatment. That is why Labour recognises that the sticking-plaster approach is failing our children badly. We must move to a preventive plan to support our mental health services and support those who need them. That is why Labour is committed to expanding mental health services and staff, ensuring that everyone can receive mental health treatment within a month of their referral. Labour is also committed to putting a specialist mental health professional in every school, and open-access mental health hubs for children and young people in every community. We need those measures in place urgently to address problems early and provide young people with a place to discuss issues such as bereavement before they reach crisis point.

By reforming and expanding mental health services, we can take the pressure off teachers and allow young people to thrive again at school. Mental health hubs will also allow young people to seek support outside the school environment and in their community instead. The Government may have written off a generation of young people, with crumbling schools and public services, but Labour will ensure that every child gets the support they need to take advantage of opportunities both at school and throughout their lives. That is vital because we know that issues that affect us in childhood can affect us throughout life. We have to go beyond expecting teachers to pick up the pieces; we must instead expand mental health support services and give teachers and students the support they need so they can focus on their progress at school.

I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West again for securing this important debate. I hope that the Minister will provide clarity on how the Government will tackle this issue and when they will recognise the importance of mental health support reform.