Long term support needed to stop Covid-19 causing permanent harm

This generation of children will need support to help them cope with the lasting effects of bereavement and loss long after the crisis is over, to avoid long term impact to their mental health and wellbeing.

This is the message from Barnardo’s on the same day the charity broadcasts its latest TV advert in its Believe in Me campaign, highlighting the importance of support services for children and young people who have experienced bereavement, loss or grief.

The leading national children’s charity says this is the situation for thousands of children facing a new reality after lockdown. In many cases, they have lost a loved one, lost the chance of opportunities they were about to take up or lost their normal support systems. 

In the ad, to be aired from 24 September 2020 onwards, a computer generated crow symbolises the feelings of loss and grief a young boy experiences from losing his Mum, before receiving support from a Barnardo’s counsellor.

Before Covid-19, official stats showed 1 in 29 5-16 year olds had been bereaved of a parent or sibling – that’s at least one child in every average class.

Data is not yet available to show how much this number has increased due to Covid-19. But as of 1 September, 41,504 people had died within 28 days of being tested positive for COVID-19 – so we know many more children and young people will be experiencing bereavement.

Some communities will be especially impacted by grief and bereavement, especially those at higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from the virus, such as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities or those living in areas of high deprivation.

Data from Kooth, the online mental health counselling provider, shows the emotional toll the pandemic has had on BAME children. It has seen a 26.6% increase in BAME children contacting them with suicidal thoughts, compared to 18.1% for white children as a result of Covid-19.

And a survey of Barnardo’s frontline staff found approximately four in five(81%) are supporting someone reporting an increase in mental health issues due to the Covid-19 crisis.

There is support out there for children who are struggling with the return to school, including the Government-funded See, Hear, Respond programme, which is led by Barnardo’s and delivered in partnership with 80 charities and organisations. However, this is only funded until the end of November. 

The Government has announced several initiatives to support children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, including a package of mental health support through local authorities for schools to run for the next six months.

But Barnardo’s says that much more needs to be done. 

Children’s grief will not just stop when these programmes stop and says there must be a strategy for longer term support, because children will need differing levels of support at different times.

This must not just be about providing counselling sessions for children, but also looking at how the systems in place to help young people cope with their mental health and wellbeing can be improved.

Ensuring schools are places of safety, offer a nurturing learning environment, and are linked to specialist services that can support children and young people through this difficult time will be critical. 

And the UK’s leading children’s charity is calling on the Government to go much further than this in the longer term.

It wants the Government to use the pandemic as a catalyst to bring about a sea change in the education system – to ensure that schools prioritise child welfare and wellbeing, so that they are on a par with academic achievement. 

There must also be additional long-term investment in early intervention children’s services to help not only children who are experiencing issues arising from the pandemic now, but also those who will need help in the future.

The pandemic has shut down valuable sources of income for the charity so it is also asking people to donate to ensure it can give the support that is needed.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive, Javed Khan said: 

“Our new TV advert features a young boy suffering from grief after the death of his mother. 

“Sadly, these raw emotions will be familiar to thousands of children and families across the UK, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Too many children and young people have lost family members and experienced loss in their wider communities – especially those from BAME communities. Others have lost support systems, contact with friends and families, and missed out on opportunities, creating feelings of isolation and anxiety for the future.

“At Barnardo’s we believe that with the right support all children can recover from trauma and work towards a positive future. We provide this support across the country – but we can’t do it alone. Now more than ever we rely on the support of our friends and partners, and the generosity of the public, to continue our vital work.”

Case study – The Kerry Family – Barnardo’s Orchard Mosaic Bereavement Service – Jesmond, Newcastle Upon Tyne

Rachel and Keith Kerry’s son Owen was killed in a knife attack in a social club in Cramlington, Northumberland on Christmas Eve 2016. He was 19.

Owen’s sisters Eve and Summer (now 14 and 9) started bereavement therapy at Barnardo’s Orchard Mosaic in Jesmond, Newcastle within a fortnight of Owen’s death. Rachel also has therapy at Orchard Mosaic. Their therapy is funded by Victim Support. Rachel is a Youth Worker and Keith is a Youth Support Worker.

Eve wasn’t ready to talk so she started by doing a lot of creative therapy with drawing and using shells and stones and other objects to represent feelings, which helped her express herself until she was ready to talk about how she felt. 

“When my brother died it was very sudden and really upsetting” she says. “I came to Orchard Mosaic to get help and talk about how I felt about it. I was nervous – I was crying at first but I’ve been coming for two years and I’ve really shared things.”

Eve’s mother Rachel says:

“at the time everything was such a blur – we were conscious that we wanted the girls to have that avenue to express how they felt. Because it was such an intense situation, we were very concerned they wouldn’t be able to share their feelings and that they would think they wouldn’t want to burden Mum and Dad with how they were feeling – that they’d think we’d already got enough on our plates.

“Just having the professional support there has been vital for the girls – to have someone who can give them an expert, objective view to help them understand a little of how they are feeling. So if they are feeling angry the therapist can tell them that that is how people normally react and be able work with them to deal with those feelings.”

Both girls have been coming to therapy for two and half years.  The sessions with Barnardo’s have come in groups of six for Eve and Summer, so that they can use them as they’ve needed to – especially at difficult times like Christmas, Owen’s birthday and starting new schools. They can stop when they think they’ve gone as far as they can, but come back as things change and they feel different. 

“When I’m not managing I know I can come back” says Eve. “It helps to know once you’ve stopped your sessions that if you need the therapy again you can come back to the same person and not have to tell everyone everything all over again.”

“It’s good to have that continuation, that safety net” says Rachel. “Because the door is left ajar for you to come back if you need to, it strengthens you knowing you have that safety net to catch you. It’s helped that the girls have been with the same workers all along and have not had to go through it all again from the beginning with different people. In that way the Barnardo’s workers have become like a nice family.”

When Summer first started she was only five years’ old and wasn’t ready for talking about her feelings , so she has had a lot of play therapy, then when she was a bit older she came back to start talking. “I didn’t talk about my feelings at first” she says “but I wanted to come. I started doing some activities and it helped a lot. When I was angry I had lots of ways to help, like listening to music and stress balls, talking to adults. They all helped me when I was feeling angry but listening to music was my favourite.”

Rachel worried about Eve starting secondary school as the high profile nature of the their bereavement was well known, especially in a relatively small town like Cramlington. 

“Everyone in the town knows what has happened to us, so the therapy has helped. It’s been an additional avenue for Eve to talk about the things on her mind, and it’s  focused on her and her needs, so she knows this is for her and she can say whatever she wants. It’s important that it’s not to us she’s talking to, her parents, but someone else, so she can say what she wants without any worries about upsetting us.

“Everyone has been super supportive, and we’ve had a lot of support from our community with different charity events. But it can be a bit difficult to have people who know of you even if they don’t know you. It’s been more an issue for me – no one has ever said anything – but sometimes it’s been hard to get up in the morning and it’s hard to feel the spotlight is on you.”

“At school people understand but they don’t understand” says Eve. “They know what I’m going through, but they haven’t experienced it because it hasn’t happened to them. But they support me.”

Even so the grief has had an impact on Eve at school – she’s been distracted from her learning, so some of the therapy has been about the impact of what’s happened on her life, so she can stay focused.

“It’s been a joined-up thing with the school and Barnardo’s” says Rachel. “It’s hard for Eve in a new school and if she didn’t have the avenue to express her feelings she might have been pulled in the wrong direction.

“But grief has an impact on everything, every area of your life and at the time you don’t realise how wide it goes. In my therapy we’ve ended up talking about everything, not just Owen and my feelings. It’s really helpful to have your grief recognised and to have it confirmed that it’s a normal response to an abnormal situation and that that’s okay.”

Keith has had post-traumatic stress disorder and has tried different types of therapy (not through Barnardo’s) but he feels he hasn’t found the right way to help him yet. But he sees how effective the therapy has been for the others. 

“We can see the change in the girls when they have the sessions” he says. “Before Summer came back she was angry without realising why and we could see the difference in her after a few sessions – it was the same with Eve. You can see the difference for even a small period of time.”

“It’s been good for us to see how the therapy worked for Eve at the beginning” says Rachel “and now it is helping Summer. I think it’s reassuring – obviously not everything works for every person, but for us it has worked. Everyone is at different stages of grief – we’re all past the initial shock, but we’re all managing and coping in different ways now.”

The difference the therapy has made is stark for Rachel and the girls.

“I think if I hadn’t come I would have been stuck” says Eve. “It’s made a difference being around someone you can share anything with and they won’t judge you for it. I don’t think I’d be where I am right now if I didn’t come here and get the help I needed. It’s helped me stay on the right track and understand why I feel like this and I know it’s part of grief”. 

“I’ve really benefited from my sessions” says Rachel. “I dread to think where I’d be without them. I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without the help from Barnardo’s – that’s absolutely fact. It’s helped me with so many things like my relationships, being a better mam, working through things at work – we’ve talked about everything. 

Summer sums it up: “It makes me feel a bit happier to come here and I really like it.”

2 – Shay from Merseyside

At the age of 14, Shay suffered from crippling anxiety and depression after her nan died and then her parents separated just a week later. She couldn’t leave the house for months and stopped going to school. Not long after, she was at the Manchester concert when there was a terrorist attack and was diagnosed with PTSD. Shay was supported through therapy by Barnardo’s BOSS service in Merseyside and is now looking to the future with hope as she studies her dream course at university.  

Shay’s story 

Shay*, 21, from Merseyside, has just completed her first year of university in Liverpool where she is studying advanced beauty, achieving a 1st for her coursework and practical exams. She is excited about the future as she enters into her second year. 

It would be difficult for anyone that didn’t know Shay to guess the immense challenges she has overcome in the past few years, and still manages today, after struggles with crippling anxiety and depression triggered by events in her teens. 

Up until Shay was 14, she had never really had any issues with her mental health, despite the fact she’d been bullied from a young age. She was picked on by a girl in her class throughout primary school about anything and everything – from the way she looked to the way she held her pen – and this carried on with the same girl through high school. 

Shay said:

“Although there were a few other girls in her group, it was the same girl that was the ringleader and the bullying mainly went unnoticed by teachers. My mum knew about it and would come in and speak to teachers, who would have a word with the girl, but nothing changed. If anything, it got worse after every time she was spoken to. I had my own friends and so I just tried my best to ignore it.” 

But in 2014 when Shay was in Year 9, she unfortunately suffered a series of traumatic events in the space of just a few days, when her nan died and then only a week later, Shay’s dad left her mum, taking her brother with him. 

Shay said:

“I was really close to my nan, she only lived nearby with my grandad and I used to go round to see her every Sunday and we would bake together. Her death hit me and my mum really hard. And then a week later, my dad left and took my brother with him. I’d noticed my mum and dad had been arguing for a while, but him leaving was just a total shock. My dad and I were so close but after he left, he didn’t want to have any contact with me. I just felt so depressed and so did my mum.” 

Following the death of Shay’s nan, the school provided a bereavement counsellor for two weeks to help her come to terms with her loss. One of the things Shay did with her counsellor was to make a shoe box of memories of her nan, which Shay says helped her and she still has now. 

But after this traumatic time, Shay’s depression and anxiety just began to get worse. She started to become withdrawn from her friends and not wanting to go out, only really speaking to her mum. And the bullying at school started to have much more of an impact on Shay’s wellbeing. 

Things got so bad that over the next year, Shay was only able to go into school for one or two days a week. Another girl at school also started bullying her and made threats, resulting in Shay not wanting to get out of bed and barely leaving home. 

Shay’s mum and her school referred her for counselling. Shay said:

“I hadn’t thought about counselling, or that it was something I needed, but I was in such a bad place and just couldn’t see a way out. The counsellor came to visit me at school.  

“In the space of only a few weeks, I was appointed three different counsellors, having to re-tell my story each time to each one. As you can guess, we didn’t get very far as it was mainly me just having to re-explain what had happened to me and how I felt each time, which just made me feel even worse and more depressed.” 

To try and support Shay at school, she was offered ‘isolation’, where she was put in a room with a handful of other pupils. Shay said: “There was no teacher in the room, you were given the topic and had to teach yourself and look things up on google if you were unsure. All the naughty kids were put in this room too, sometimes including the people that bullied me. It was so difficult to motivate yourself and I really struggled as it just made me so anxious all the time and didn’t help at all.” 

Shay didn’t go into school for almost all of Year 11 and dropped most of her lessons. She started having suicidal thoughts and was referred to Barnardo’s BOSS service in Merseyside, which provides counselling for children and young people in the area. 

Shay said:

“By this point, I was so anxious and couldn’t leave the house, but I also knew I simply couldn’t carry on like this and wanted things to change. 

“My counsellor from Barnardo’s came to the house to visit me and asked if I wanted help. She explained she would visit me at home for the first few sessions, but then she wanted me to start coming out to meet her, to get me out of the house. 

“It was quite overwhelming at first but then I started to feel more hopeful about things. I met my counsellor once a week and she helped me with coping methods.

“She helped me to deal with the loss of my nan by talking about how it made me feel and writing my feelings down in a diary. She encouraged me to put all my nicest memories of my nan into a memory jar, and read these when I felt sad. I still use this now sometimes.

“We would make to-do lists and set goals to give me a focus of things to do for the day, so I wouldn’t just hide away in bed. She got me to start doing more of the things I enjoyed, such as baking, walking the dog and practising make up again, which was one of my passions I’d lost for a while. 

“After the first few sessions, I started getting the bus to meet her. The first few times my mum would wait outside, but then I started getting the bus on my own and my counsellor would meet me at the bus stop. 

“I became more positive and gained the confidence to start at college a couple of days a week and re-sit my GCSEs. I was still anxious for most of that time as I readjusted to socialising again, but I was also excited and started to plan what I wanted to do with my life.” 

Shay started work experience at a beauty salon and the owner, who had also suffered with anxiety, helped Shay to continue building a more positive mindset.  

Throughout Shay’s whole journey, her mum has been her absolute rock. The pair grew so close and did everything together. 

On 22 May 2017, Shay and her mum had arranged to go to Manchester to see Shay’s idol, Ariana Grande, in concert. 

Shay said:

“I loved the concert but I was anxious about how many people were there, so my mum and I got up to leave slightly early to avoid the crowds at the end. As we were about to walk into the foyer, that’s when the bomb went off. We saw the people lying on the floor and everyone started screaming and trampling over each other. We ran to a different exit to get out and called a friend to pick us up. 

“I just felt numb and empty about it all. I can’t remember much about what happened – I must have blocked it out – and the whole time period of weeks surrounding that night are a blur.  

“The next morning was one of my GCSE exam re-sits. I didn’t want to go, but I also didn’t want to go back to how I was before, so I used the techniques my Barnardo’s counsellor taught me to not stay in bed and dwell, but to get up and went to sit my exam, which I was proud of myself for. I met with my counsellor a few days later as mum was worried this might set me back, but it hadn’t hit me then and didn’t until a long time after.” 

Two months later, Shay was on holiday with family. As they watched an outdoor show one evening, a thunder and lightning storm hit unexpectedly. Shay said:

“Everyone started screaming and running to get away from the storm and it brought everything back from that night. I had a panic attack and started crying and felt I was reliving what happened at the concert. After that, I struggled to deal with loud or unexpected noises like people slamming doors and fireworks, or people running.” 

Shay was later diagnosed by a doctor with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Shay had moved on from her one to one counselling sessions and started attending group therapy sessions through Barnardo’s, where a small group of young people would meet with the counsellor each week. Shay said:

“We did lots of ice breakers and exercises to explore anxiety and build our confidence, as well as things like meditation. We all made friends and it was really valuable to realise other young people were going through similar things to me.”  

Shay continued in her efforts to move forward and enrolled on a beauty course at college, which she loved. However, she started to feel depressed again during a difficult period when her mum was ill and had a long stay in hospital, meaning Shay was living on her own. Shay said:

“I accessed support through adult mental health services but was discharged as I was struggling to keep appointments whilst visiting mum. I was able to restart these though once mum was feeling better and they helped me to manage the change of starting university and to feel more stable.”

A specialist NHS Hub kept in regular contact with Shay after the terror attack at the concert to monitor her PTSD and provided a series of specialist therapy sessions to manage the side effects she was still experiencing. Shay’s PTSD symptoms have since improved and she has even recently been back to the Manchester venue to attend a concert with friends.

“It was very emotional at first to remember where it all happened, but I enjoyed myself and was really proud I could do this. I’ve have been back a few times now.”

For the past two years, Shay has been involved with a Barnardo’s participation group linked to the BOSS counselling service, where she and several other young people that have used the service meet to talk about issues affecting them and young people in general, and help to advise Barnardo’s on how to make their services more user friendly. Shay said: “I enjoy being a part of this group, it feels good to give back and help others after how much Barnardo’s has helped me.”

Shay was also able to go on a trip abroad last year with her university course, which was a huge landmark moment for her and something she never thought she would have the confidence to do.

“I felt so much pride that I was able to do this – of course I was anxious in the lead up and all the way to my mum dropping me off at the airport, but I calmed down when I saw my friends and I loved the trip. It’s given me the self-assurance now that I feel I could travel more in the future with friends.”

When asked what would have happened if she hadn’t received support for her mental health, Shay said:

“If I hadn’t been able to access the counselling and support with Barnardo’s that I’ve had to improve my mental health, I feel like I still wouldn’t have left the house. I just couldn’t have seen a future going forwards and Barnardo’s has supported me so much. 

“I’m so much more positive now and so proud of how far I’ve come in my journey. I learnt lots of different techniques that I still use every day to help manage my anxiety and depression, such as different breathing techniques and meditation, as well as the to-do lists, setting goals and writing down how I feel in a diary, which I really recommend. 

“My goals started off as mini ones, such as getting the bus by myself and going to see friends, but they graduated to bigger goals, such as college, saving up for my own car, learning to drive and going to uni! A few years ago, I could barely leave the house but now I’m hardly in it as I’m always out with friends or walking my dog. 

“I do still struggle sometimes with my anxiety, but it’s not as intense as it was and I have techniques I can use to help me deal with it.”

Has the lockdown impacted on you? Shay said:

“I feel the lockdown was a step backwards for me and had quite a big impact. I was doing really well before, and although I was lucky I could continue my studies online, I started getting more anxious about leaving the house, being near crowds and talking to people when I started going back out. I’m excited to start uni again and see my friends though.”

Shay’s advice for other young people who may be struggling with anxiety, depression or with their mental health in general, is this: “It’s hard to speak to people about things at first, but it does get easier and it does get better. There is support out there and although in the beginning I felt like nothing would work and was anxious about going to therapy, I started looking forward to it each week. It was good to have someone to talk to and I learnt lots of coping techniques that I still use today. By accepting help I feel it does help you to move forward and when I look back now, it’s crazy to think how far I’ve come in the last few years.”

*False name used to protect identity.

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