Children who have lost a parent to diseases like cancer may benefit if given treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) first, a study by researchers at the University of Georgia has suggested.
The researchers found that PTSD not only affects victims of major trauma or those who have witnessed violence, but also kids who have lost a parent to diseases such as cancer.
The study's lead author, Rene Searles McClatchey, an adjunct professor in the UGA School of Social Work, said that this finding has major implications for helping children cope with grief.
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.
"Often children who have lost a parent are given grief therapy, and we've found that grief therapy doesn't help if you don't take care of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms first," she said.
McClatchey and her colleagues found that children who did not attend the camp were 4.5 times more likely to experience severe PTSD as compared to those who did, while the odds of experiencing severe grief were 3.6 times greater for children who did not attend the camp than for those who did.
She said that the study not only shows that camp-based interventions work; it also found a link between post-traumatic stress disorder and grief. She cited an earlier study to explain that grief counselling without PTSD treatment did not reap positive benefits.
Until now, researchers have overlooked the post-traumatic stress and grief of children whose parents died expectedly after a long illness but focused on those whose parents' death resulted from accident or violence. But the new study establishes that both groups can benefit from PTSD treatment followed by grief counselling.
One of the co-authors of the study said that 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.
"The camp allows kids to process their grief and go on with their lives. They can attend to everyday activities in a way that they weren't able to before and can concentrate better in school," said the author.
Besides, another benefit of the camp setting is that it gives children around-the-clock access to counsellors so that those who don't open up during group sessions can have their needs addressed individually. The researchers added that attending such camps with other children that have experienced a loss has benefits that individual therapy can't provide.
The study will be published in the upcoming issue of the journal Research on Social Work Practice.