Feature Stories

Treating post-traumatic stress first helps children overcome grief

Post traumatic stress disorder is commonly thought to affect victims of major trauma and those who witness violence, but a new University of Georgia study finds that it also can affect children who have lost a parent expectedly to diseases such as cancer.

The finding, scheduled to be published in the May issue of the journal Research on Social Work Practice, has major implications for helping children cope with grief, said lead author Rene Searles McClatchey, an adjunct professor in the UGA School of Social Work. McClatchey co-authored the study with UGA associate professor Elizabeth Vonk and University of California, Riverside assistant professor Gregory Palardy.

McClatchey is also founder and director of Camp Magik, a non-profit organization that provides weekend camps for children that blend traditional camp activities such as canoeing and hiking with therapy for PTSD and grief. McClatchey and her colleagues studied 100 children to test the effectiveness of the camp-based intervention.

They found that the odds of continuing to experience severe PTSD were 4.5 times higher for children who did not attend the camp compared to those who did; and the odds of experiencing severe grief were 3.6 times greater for children who did not attend the camp than for those who did.

McClatchey said that in addition to showing that camp-based interventions work, the study found a link between post-traumatic stress disorder and grief. She explains that a previous study she conducted in 2005 in which children attended camp and underwent grief counseling without PTSD treatment found that the children didn't improve or, in some cases, fared worse after the camp.

Few studies have examined the effectiveness of camp-based interventions and most studies on overcoming grief have focused on children who have lost family members to sudden death resulting from violence or accidents. Until now, researchers have overlooked the post-traumatic stress and grief of children whose parents died expectedly after a long illness. The new study finds that both groups can benefit from PTSD treatment followed by grief counseling.

Vonk said the PTSD treatment consisted of exposure therapy, in which the children talk about their loss repeatedly until their fear diminished, and cognitive restructuring, in which children learn to modify negative thoughts, such as feelings of guilt, about their loss. The grief treatment portion included cognitive restructuring as well as lessons on coping skills.

Another benefit of the camp setting is that it gives children around-the-clock access to counselors so that those who don't open up during group sessions can have their needs addressed individually. The researchers add that attending such camps with other children that have experienced a loss has benefits that individual therapy can't provide.

Published Saturday,