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Mental Health

This article is an excerpt from a commission awarded to Culturissima by a Harley Street psychoanalytic practice.

Further articles in the same series by David Winter include Performance Anxiety, On Being a Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Pursuit of Perfectionism, together with a short introduction to the work of Donald Winnicott.

Sudden Death: A Corporate Response to Grief

I recently heard of two schools whose heads had died in post. These deaths were dealt with – not dealt with – by a simple announcement to the pupils. Sometimes teachers have instructed children not to talk among themselves about distressing events like the death of another child… One need hardly elaborate.

Two or so months later, in April 2006, Trescothick himself expanded on the (apparent) motivation behind his “dramatic departure” from India: "I had to leave India because I picked up a bug and it hit me hard. I could not shrug it off and it left me fatigued."

The very next month, playing at Lord’s – the home of English cricket – Trescothick hit a majestic century for the England eleven against Sri Lanka. It soon became apparent, however, that the batsman’s return to international form was only temporary. A reluctant Trescothick announced in the press that he was no longer able to represent his country due to a "sensitive medical condition”, an ailment that was later to be described as an “acquired gastrointestinal infection" before morphing into an “underlying stress–related illness”.

Why do schools so rarely promote an understanding of issues concerning loss or death?

The explanation for this omission is usually couched in the following plaintive terms: Why burden our children with such depressing thoughts? Yet close scrutiny of the psychological phenomena that come under review in this and the following chapter will suggest a different motivation for this deep-seated reluctance.

Namely, that “death” is largely excluded from the national curriculum not as a mean of protecting the spiritual well-being of the young, but in order to insulate the minds of their teachers from the anxiety of loss. I contend that the subject of death – especially the sudden, unexplained and premature death of a child (as in Jason’s case) – is just too painful for most educational institutions to confront.

… The abrupt and shocking nature of Jason’s death meant that there was no time for anticipatory grief, and no slow severing of the school’s links with its former pupil. The staff room was further plagued by the largely unspoken possibility that it was in some way to blame for the child’s death.

There is no doubt that, as the survivors of an apparently suicidal death, the staff experienced their surroundings as less supporting and more rejecting than if a natural loss had occurred. It could also be argued that the teachers at St Stephen’s absorbed some of the stigma of the loss of one of their pupils and considered themselves less likeable, more blameworthy and more ashamed as a result.