Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education
A student listens to a math lesson from behind a protection shield at a socially distanced desk.

How is grief support different from mental health support?

As students prepare to return to their classrooms for the 2021-22 school year, many are processing grief after the death of a loved one during the pandemic. To help those students, some schools are planning to offer grief support as part of their social-emotional learning curriculums.

However, some experts have cautioned school officials not to implement grief support in the same way they handle other mental health issues.

Experts consider grief a natural response to the death of a loved one, while other mental health issues include a range of conditions that do not always occur in response to a specific life event. They agree that grief plays a role in conversations about mental health and that both impact a student’s social-emotional development. But grief, they say, requires a unique type of support.

“Bereavement and grief is not a mental illness. It’s a life experience,” said Dr. David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. “It’s a very difficult life experience, but everyone goes through it.” Any feelings or reactions to that experience that can typically be “managed through support and assistance,” he added.

Grief can show up multiple times in students’ lives as they grow older and reach new developmental stages, according to Carolyn Christ, associate clinical coordinator of school & children’s programs at Our House Grief Support Center in Los Angeles.

“And so to be able to have tools to kind of handle that grief as it comes up again, knowing that they have a toolbox of coping skills that they can go to or knowing who the people are that they can reach out to… these are things that are all really helpful,” Christ said.

What is an example of a grief support activity?

Our House Grief Support Center offers 10-week programs for students. Every week, the group starts with a check-in during which every person shares five things about the person in their life who died:

  1. The person’s name
  2. The person’s age
  3. The person’s role in the family
  4. How they died
  5. When they died

They will then answer an additional question that changes every week to frame the project for the day.

“That simple act of checking in is a way to start helping students find language that feels comfortable for them to use, to talk about what happened, to kind of start to create their narrative and start to give them confidence in being able to talk about it,” Christ said.

Why are experts advocating for grief support in schools?

More than 30% of students surveyed in March by the ACLU of Southern California said they’d lost someone close to them over the past year.

As schools reopen for in-person learning during the 2021-22 school year, students may seek support from their teachers, school staff, and school-based programs. One reason might be that schools are often seen as trusted institutions by both students and their families. Plus, the pandemic has been a global crisis event.

“Large-scale crisis events or life-changing events, that’s what they do: they change your life. You don’t go back to the way you were. And there are all of these secondary stressors and losses that you continue to respond to,” Schonfeld said.

Schools can be equipped to respond to the stressors because the people who staff them may have experienced them as well.

How are schools in California funding grief support programs?

The state’s budget for the 2021-22 school year includes billions in funding for student mental health services, which can be used by school districts to offer grief support.

Some school districts, like Los Angeles Unified, have developed their own grief curriculums.

Some of the state funding will go toward providing all Californians under the age of 26 with access to mental health therapy and other mental health services.

“The (budget revision) proposes a statewide and comprehensive transformation of the behavioral health system for all Californians age 25 and younger — changing the life trajectory of children so that they can grow up to be healthier, both physically and mentally,” according to the summary of the budget revision Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed in May.

What type of resources exist for schools and educators to provide grief support for students?

The Coalition to Support Grieving Students has compiled resources for educators and schools, including resources specific to Covid-19 and the transition to in-person learning.

Schonfeld clarified that teachers and school staff might feel conflicted about offering support to students as they process the death of a loved one.

He said that teachers should keep in mind “that we’re not asking them to be therapists or counselors. We’re just asking them to be compassionate, to help kids deal with the difficulties they have in learning because of their grief, to help them know about resources that are available to them… but then the issue becomes a lot of these educators have experienced deaths themselves, and it’s really hard to talk about it.”

While the coalition’s work focuses on students, they also include information on how teachers and school staff can care for themselves as they provide grief support to students.

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  1. Mary Johnson 2 years ago2 years ago

    #pleasehelpme : Parent-U-Turn believes, the first day of school will be significant because our students and teachers will be together for the first time after one and a half years apart. Please complete your Reopening School Survey at Your Voices Matters!