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Children’s Grief Awareness Week

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 25th November 2015.

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Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I, too, thank Gil Paterson for raising the issue and for his eloquent speech, which narrated the depth and complexity of the issue. It is not a high-profile one, but it is certainly high up in its consequence and effect and, indeed, its intensity for many people.

As we are all aware, the issue is hidden in many ways. That is perhaps for two reasons. First, it can be hidden because of age and the inability of a child to communicate. It can be because of reticence, the lack of maturity and the inability to verbalise feelings or speak about the situation with others. That can be compounded by the inability of adults to address the needs of the child. They might be concerned with their own grief, or the situation might simply be difficult. Those challenges multiply the problems that affect everybody when there is a loss.

Secondly, there is the culture in Scotland. We have a culture of “Big boys don’t cry,” and even girls are sometimes expected just to soak it up and get on with it. That is not just in Scotland; the western world is not particularly good at dealing with death. That has probably been compounded in recent years, but it is something that we have passed down through the generations. The older generation, who should be able to address it better, are not particularly good at helping those who are younger and who are struggling to cope.

This is a significant issue. The statistics that appeared in the briefing from the childhood bereavement network to which Malcolm Chisholm referred are substantial:

“2,400 parents died in Scotland last year ... leaving dependent children”.

There were

“3,900 newly bereaved children last year ... Around 3.5% of school-age children and young people (5-16) have been bereaved at some point”.

The briefing also notes:

“5% of young people have been bereaved of at least one parent by the time they reach the age of 16.”

The network goes on to narrate the mental and physical health outcomes and the effects on education and employment. It also mentions criminal and disruptive behaviour, sadly:

“The death of a parent by the age of 26 increases young people’s risk of conviction for violent offences.”

The statistics are rather stark.

I recall when I was Cabinet Secretary for Justice challenging the Scottish Prison Service about the difficulties that we have with women offenders, who are treated sympathetically for the loss and trauma that many of them will have gone through, and asking it about comparisons with young men. The Prison Service said that the same difficulties often apply to young men but that the culture of big boys not crying and simply soaking it up, which I referred to earlier, transcends them, so that they are not addressed and are never articulated.

That will have lifelong consequences for those young men and, sadly, it means them getting into the Polmont young offenders institution or the adult prison network. That is not to condone their behaviour—they have to address it and face the consequences of their actions—but we need to tackle the underlying effects and the manifestations of it. Sadly, such young men often try to address their bereavement and loss by the traditional Scottish method of self-medication through alcohol or drugs. That is why we need to address it.

We in Scotland are blessed by the agencies that Gil Paterson mentioned. I am glad to see that representatives of Richmond’s Hope are here. I visited the organisation, which is located in my constituency, and I am delighted to hear that it is extending its services elsewhere. It faces challenges in the resources that it has. A few people do an awful lot of good work with a large number of young people.

We need a strategy, but we also need delivery. We are in tight, straitened circumstances, which are probably compounded by what has been happening in another Parliament elsewhere today, but I ask the minister to ensure not only that we have that strategy but that we do what we can to ensure that we have the necessary resource for the outstanding organisations that Gil Paterson mentioned, which are necessary for every individual—and especially every child—who has suffered loss.