Feelings of grief after the loss of a loved one are universal. While most people adapt to the loss over a period of time, for some the process is stalled or blocked, resulting in “complicated grief,” persistent and intense emotional pain and preoccupying thoughts that impair their day-to-day functioning.
For families who lose an active-duty military service member, adapting to their loss often can be especially challenging. Some 19,000 American service members have died since 2001, and preliminary reports indicate that nearly 40 percent of their loved ones may experience continued difficulties managing their grief. Experts on grief at the Columbia School of Social Work are collaborating with the Defense Department’s Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences on a mobile and web-based way to help those families cope.
“Grief often feels like a cold, dark, lonely place,” said Katherine Shear, the Marion E. Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Social Work, who led the effort to develop the complicated grief app and its web counterpart that will be rolled out to military families early next year and studied for its effectiveness. “We’re hoping to warm things up, to open a door to the outside world. We want to help these families to understand grief and adaptation to loss, to rebuild meaningful relationships and feel hopeful about their future.”
The app, called GriefSteps, is not intended as therapy, but as a way to provide bereaved families with information, activities and resources to help them move forward in their lives. It has six steps, each aimed at helping participants—whether their family member died in combat, from illness or accident, or suicide—with the process of integrating grief into their lives and re-engaging in a life with purpose and meaning.
Shear, a psychiatrist who joined the School of Social Work faculty in 2006, is director of the school’s Center for Complicated Grief, which conducts research and provides training in complicated grief therapy for mental health professionals. A pioneer in the field, Shear has developed this therapy for persistent intense grief and it has been proven effective in multiple clinical trials funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.
Columbia and the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense for a randomized control study to test the app’s effectiveness when compared to one not specifically designed for military families. Stephen Cozza, a retired Army colonel who is a professor of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, noted that those who die while on active duty are usually young, their deaths can be sudden or violent, and their survivors often live far from those who could provide emotional support. Families may also need to vacate military housing and deal with a loss of some military services, as well as their connection to their community.
“We wanted to apply the principles of Dr. Shear’s evidence-based therapy to military families,” said Cozza, who with Shear is a principal investigator in the study. He said Shear and her team were his top choice to collaborate on the app. For now, families of those who died are the target audience. Eventually, veterans and active-duty service members who are grieving a loss may be included, as well as the general public.
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