Mental Health Awareness week

Posted: May 15, 2023

‘As we recover from loss, we can learn about what’s important in life’

Dr Tricia Tumelty, executive director of Mind Jersey, reflects on how memories can bring comfort and explains why addressing the root causes of mental-health difficulties is so important the difficult topics of grief and death. Although the book centres around the relationship between a little girl and her dog, I always hoped that Forget Me Not could be applied more generally when dealing with life and loss.

‘The story itself follows Rose’s journey through grief as she tries to find a way to cope with how she is feeling after the death of her beloved dog, Dotty. Naturally, Rose finds the grieving process to be an extremely difficult and anxious time.

LAST month, I experienced a sadness which will be familiar to many Islanders – that of saying goodbye to a beloved family pet.

In my case, it was our 12-year-old cat, known as Black and White, who passed away and, in his final moments, I told him how much we loved him and how much he had helped our family in so many ways.

This might seem like a strange thing to say, but I am very confident that Black and White reduced anxiety levels for all our family members in ways we can never know or measure. Black and White got us through exam pressures, illnesses and the general – and sometimes extraordinary – ups and downs of family life.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have pets. For some, the cost of food, vet bills and housing pressures may make this prohibitive. Others may not have been lucky enough to have pets as children and are therefore perhaps more reluctant to take the plunge.

The theme for this month’s World Mental Health Week is anxiety, and the week focuses on the importance of raising awareness about what anxiety is or isn’t and what we can do to manage it.

Anxiety is a very normal emotion, but sometimes it can creep up on us and get out of control, becoming a mental health problem. For some, stroking a pet such as Black and White can help. A walk in a field or park, going out in nature or chatting to a friend is also good. Others need more specialised care, and we need to get better at ensuring that more people, young and old, get the specialist interventions they want and need.

The World Health Organisation describes how our mental health is largely determined by the conditions in which we are born, grow, work, live and age. These elements are then set alongside the wider set of forces shaping the conditions of our lives. Today, as we celebrate World Mental Health Week, I want to encourage all to focus on the small things that matter to us. In my case, at a time when big global problems can feel overwhelming and provoke anxiety, that ‘small thing’ is Black and White.

On the subject of bereavement and coming to terms with the passing of our cat, I recently met children’s author Carolyn O’Boyle whose book, Forget Me Not, is designed to support children who are experiencing grief.

This book highlights the importance of memories and how we can turn to them for comfort something which, as a psychotherapist, particularly resonates with me.

As I spoke with Carolyn about her inspiration for Forget Me Not, she said: ‘My vision was to create a book which celebrated nature and the seasons in all their glory while also celebrating the special bond between children and their pets.

‘However, I also wanted a picture book which created a safe space for families to come together to discuss unresolved or unaddressed grief, I am reminded of the brutal ways that childhood wounds can seep through generations if not helped to sooth or heal.

As I chatted with Carolyn, I was reminded of how important it is to talk to children about subjects including loss and grief in an age-appropriate way and to build on this as they get older. Carolyn and I reflected on how not everyone finds this easy and how we need to get better at helping parents and children to navigate the very challenging journey through grief in all its stages and guises.

While bereavement can contribute to poor mental health, there are many root causes of mental-health difficulties and, to improve the services offered across the public and voluntary sectors, we need to address these root causes.

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