A year on: Are everyday people our new invisible trauma and loss workers?

| Lourdes Colclough

This blog is written by Lourdes Colclough, a community engagement lead and trainer who is passionate about addressing health inequalities. It’s the latest in our “a year on” series, where we invite the writers who told us about their first-hand experiences of community work during the COVID-19 pandemic back to the blog to reflect on what they’ve learnt 12 months down the line. Lourdes used her previous blog to sound the alarm about the growing and multiple inequalities in the way that the COVID crisis was affecting different communities, particularly highlighting racial injustice. A year on from that prescient piece, Lourdes is back to share her insight into the new role that many people in our communities are playing – counsellors of grief and trauma.

It’s been one year since I wrote my last blog for the Ideas Alliance and a year I’ll never forget. This time last year I had just began my furlough, not sure if I’d have a job to go back to, watching Covid-19 cases climb vigorously every day on the TV together with my levels of anxiety.  

My last blog was all about inequalities. I believed where you were born, the colour of your skin, where you live, and your occupation would affect your experience of this pandemic.  Statistics prove this to be right and we’re all aware of them now. Mortality rates from Covid-19 in the most deprived areas in the UK are double those in the least deprived. I wrote before about key workers and food poverty, communities jumping into action but not George Floyd, because at the time I didn’t know who George Floyd was and I didn’t realise the traumatic significance his death would have around the world. People started waking up from their political slumber. Marches around the world demanded a structural change and challenged racial inequalities in a way I have never seen or felt before but the cost was trauma and loss at many levels. My brother remembered the racist attacks he experienced in his youth, it unraveled trauma for so many people in different ways. Covid-19, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter movement, key workers and frontline staff dying with communities reacting to fill gaps: this was the tapestry of the last year.

What I witnessed throughout the year was communities responding on a micro level. People responded through virtual poetry workshops, choirs, dancing and people offered free mindfulness and yoga sessions. Communities responded to the trauma and loss of the last year through emerging community leaders and already existing support networks. St Joseph’s Hospice’s Islington Bereavement Service (which is based on a compassionate communities model) has seen a 50% rise in referrals in the last quarter. As an independent Community Trainer I worked alongside my colleague Emma Quintal, in collaboration with the Selby Trust and Cruse Bereavement Care providing training for communities and non-professionals around trauma and loss. 

People taking the training included arts coordinators, social prescribers, church-goers and many more everyday people. These people are supporting their communities in deprived areas of London, already providing accidental bereavement and trauma support whilst often dealing with multiple losses themselves. These communities gather informally, bound by the arts, music, religion or cultural background. They are the invisible bereavement and trauma community who provide a social and therapeutic safe haven for people around them, people who are often called ‘marginalised’, ‘hard to reach’ or ‘seldom heard’. The loss and trauma experienced by these groups is being soaked in by their peers and networks in an informal way. 

The training is a way to support people who find themselves taking on this role without a professional background in trauma. Lucia, a participant on the course, reflects on why this type of training is so important: 

“The individual benefit of taking time to reflect on your own resilience and ability to process the things we’ve been through was invaluable. Mental wellbeing and making sure we have the tools to check in on it is vital. It always was, but many of us ploughed on not thinking too intentionally about it! 

For me, as a local councillor and as someone active in my community, it was important to think beyond the personal and consider how I can help others around me and in the community be resilient and look out for their own mental wellbeing. I have returned again and again to some of the tools, shared them via WhatsApp on multiple occasions and talked about the experience”.

Communities need to be equipped to deal with loss and trauma in their own environment, because that’s where impacted people are going for support when waiting lists for Talking Therapies are too long and Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services are inundated. Even if they could receive counselling, some communities would not go to a counsellor. It’s a Western concept to sit in a room and speak to a stranger for 50 minutes with minimal interaction. However, the bereavement and trauma training sessions offered by Selby Trust and Cruse Bereavement Care aimed at communities and not professionals were fully-booked within 24 hours. Participants proved they are conduits to support for their communities including faith groups, arts studios, boxing clubs or choirs. Communities proved they want and need this kind of training and support.  

We must remember that it’s not only food poverty and widening economic inequalities that are the issue – it’s the psycho-social fall out of Covid-19, the loss and trauma which needs to be addressed. Funders and governments need to act on a macro level to ensure communities become trauma-informed so they can work adequately from within. This naturally-emerging, invisible group of loss and trauma catchers are providing this support already, we can’t stop them, we just need to ensure they have access to good training and information to support them. Wouldn’t it be great to have a trauma-informed bingo caller who could respond well to someone who opened up to them on a social night out?  

What we do know is people find it difficult navigating the health and care system and finding the support they need. So maybe it’s time to provide support where people naturally live and meet instead. Perhaps we don’t always need to be a trained counsellor sitting in a stuffy room for 50 minutes to provide good bereavement or trauma-informed support. Maybe we just need trusted everyday people from local communities who are there at the right place at the right time, where people naturally meet, who are trained to listen well and deal with this new pandemic of complex loss.

Image of a smiling woman with long silver wavy hair.
Trainer and Community Engagement Lead Lourdes Colclough

If you are interested in this work and approach, you can find Lourdes on Twitter @LourdesCCo.

Header photo by Neil Thomas.

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