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Media Release
The South African Depression & Anxiety Group


22nd February 2005

What to do when death impacts your school

IN RESPONSE to the rocketing incidents of suicide, and HIV/AIDS-related deaths affecting South African schools, the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) has launched a powerful yet practical programme to help learners, teachers, parents and communities deal with the impact of death on schools and communities.

The title conjures up images of Columbine in the USA and Beslan in Russia, but the reality is far more common and pervasive than such high-profile headline tragedies suggest. February 21st to 28th is Teen Suicide Prevention Week in SA, and SADAG is focusing specific attention on this critical issue.

“Everywhere our children go today they are bombarded by the results of a motor accident, domestic violence, gangsters, drugs, the mounting impact of HIV/AIDS or the growing horror of suicide, death has become a harrowing part of normal life,” says Roshni Parbhoo, Senior Trainer at SADAG.

“But it isn’t just the children who suffer, although theirs is the most poignant grief. Teachers, moms and dads, uncles, aunts, grannies, and indeed entire communities are traumatised when the horror of death suddenly lands in their lap.

“How communities and specifically schools deal with such tragedies and the resultant trauma is absolutely critical to ease the pain and trauma and indeed reduce the very real risks of secondary tragedy,” says Parbhoo, who helped develop the “When Death Impacts Your School” programme.

She says more tragedies occur than ever make media headlines and, while “trauma is real and the pain can be overwhelming no matter where it strikes”, the impact on outlying and rural communities can be especially harsh in view of the fact that the people there are mostly left to their own resources, while more support systems are in place in urban areas.

“We have seen the spontaneous and public outpouring that follows school-related tragedies all over the world. The media are full of images of mounds of flowers blocking school gates, silent huddles of teens comforting each other and the bewildered stares of victims of violence.

“And while these expressions of grief and solidarity are quite understandable and human, this kind of mass public demonstration is not always the most appropriate response – especially where children and teenagers are concerned,” warns Parbhoo.

“Teenagers today are amongst the most vulnerable sectors of society,” says SADAG founder Zane Wilson. “Suicide claims as many as 21 lives each day; which is hardly surprising as the impact of HIV/AIDS increasingly tears communities and families apart. In addition, young people too often find themselves caught between youth and the huge responsibilities of adulthood. Teenage heads of households are common in rural SA and simply do not have the life-skills or resilience built over many years to deal with trauma and tragedy.

“From the forested hills of KZN to the flat barren desert of Northern Cape, spurred by growing unemployment, runaway poverty and the on-going failure to deliver mental health resources to the majority of South Africans, high levels of violence and substance abuse are as common as the sense of hopelessness,” says Wilson.

SADAG’s “When Death Impacts Your School” supplements the hugely successful programme aimed at school children, “Suicide Shouldn't be a Secret”.

“Where the latter emphasises the importance of seeking help, either for oneself or for a friend in trouble, the former gives practical advice and guidelines on dealing with the aftermath of death, whatever the cause,” explains Parbhoo.

Given as a workshop at schools, the “When Death Impacts Your School" programme outlines a clear action plan that carefully balances comfort and trauma counselling without allowing over-dramatisation, destructive rumour mongering and the recent phenomenon of media sensationalism.

“It is vital that the tragedy be addressed correctly and immediately. Trained school counsellors, professional health care workers and trauma counsellors from within the communities themselves, need to intervene to console, support and advise, but we also assist in helping schools identify and appoint suitable ‘spokespersons’ to deal with enquiries.

“Tragic and traumatic though a suicide is, it is crucial not to allow one incident to spiral out of control. Someone else's suicide may attract a child who may decide to copy it with equally tragic consequences,” warns Parbhoo, who says the programme has already had an overwhelming response in both the Northern Cape and North West Province.

SADAG plans to take the programme to as many areas as possible, especially those which its other rural outreach work has identified as particularly at risk. Particularly Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape “We urgently need funding for at least two fully trained and supported outreach co-ordinators in each province,” she adds.

For more information, contact
Roshni Parbhoo (011) 783-1474 or 084 440 4760