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Mental Health

The loneliness of a grieving child: Where does help come from?

Genevieve Liu (center, at podium) sings at a memorial service for her father in Chicago. Photo credit: Jamie Manley/Chicago Maroon

Genevieve Liu (center, at podium) sings at a memorial service for her father in Chicago. Photo credit: Jamie Manley/Chicago Maroon

Two years ago, Sicily Kolbeck, 12, of Marietta designed a 128-square-foot house as part of a school project that she planned to work on with her dad.

But before the two could complete the tiny house, her father was killed in an automobile accident. With him gone and with grief overcoming his daughter, the construction came to a halt.

Coping with the loss of a close friend or family member is among the hardest challenges that a person can face. The challenge is even more difficult when a child loses a parent.

JoAnna White, of Georgia State University’s Department of Counseling and Psychological Services, says that in the initial stages of grief, activities that brought pleasure are often no longer of interest, especially when they are closely related to the deceased parent.

“When a child loses a parent, it is the most significant and difficult loss that they could experience, and they will deal with it the rest of their lives,” says White.

Children in this situation need constant, loving support from the surviving parent and other family members who are also grieving.

If this support is provided, eventually children can get beyond the inward stage of grief and begin to focus on their lives again. None of this is simple or easy, but if children can get there — giving of themselves outwardly, rather than handling everything inwardly — that is therapeutic in itself, says White.

“Following any parental loss, we have minimal mental energy in the beginning,” says White. Later, giving back can be very beneficial, she adds. And that’s what happens as part of the healing process.

The interior of Sicily Kolbeck's house project

The interior of Sicily Kolbeck’s house project. Credit: La Petite Maison blog


As Sicily Kolbeck recounts in a recent Huffington Post blog, she hoped that completing the house would begin to provide the life skills that really mattered, such as using tools for construction.

Ultimately, with the help of the community and a few friends of her father’s, her tiny house was completed. Only then was Sicily ready to move on with her teenage life, she says, as well as to move from Georgia to Maryland with her mother.


Building new connections


“The deeper you love, the longer you grieve,” says Trudy Post Sprunk, a licensed marriage and family therapist in the Atlanta area.

“For children, if there is a close relationship, the longer the healing process will take,” Sprunk says. This is especially true with the traumatic death of a parent.

Research shows that most people can recover from loss on their own. But it takes time, social support and encouraging healthy habits.

Dr. Donald Liu

Dr. Donald Liu

In Chicago, Genevieve Liu’s father, Donald, a pediatrician, died in August 2012 after trying to rescue two children caught in a strong Lake Michigan current. The two children survived.

It’s a tragedy that Genevieve will never forget.  But she wanted to go beyond just remembering. She wanted to help others.

She built a website during her healing process. The site, called, was created to provide a supportive community where users can discuss what they’re going through after the loss of a parent.

“Genevieve is an amazing and articulate individual who has found such healing in developing this website,” Dana Suskind, her mother, who is also a physician, said in a Chicago Tribune article.

Now 14,  Genevieve says she was inspired by her friendship with a classmate whose mother passed away. It was after her friend’s loss when she decided to create SLAPD: Surviving Life After a Parent Dies. This is a website where young people can find a sense of community and, hopefully, some solace, says Genevieve.

“The mission is to let a lot of people who’ve lost a parent know they’re not alone and to gain strength from each other,” she says. “I think there’s huge power through community.”

Here in Georgia, Christen Bartley graduated from Columbus State University last year without three people she had once hoped to see smiling in the audience: her mother, father and sister. The three perished in a plane crash in July 2012.

The graduation was difficult for Christen. But she focused on “how lucky she was to have them for 23 years. Not everyone is that fortunate,” she told the Columbus State News.

It’s getting back up and finishing what was important to your loved ones before their deaths that helps, experts say.

Sicily Kolbeck says, “Sometimes when people get a hard knock, they stay down. I didn’t. That’s my claim to fame. I didn’t only want to show it is possible to live with less waste, and that anyone can build their own house; I also wanted to show that when I was handed lemons, I not only made lemonade. I made a lemon cake. And I ate it. And it was delicious.”

Here’s a video on Sicily and her house from her blog La Petite Maison:


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Judi Kanne, a registered nurse and freelance writer, combines her nursing and journalism backgrounds to write about public health. She lives in Atlanta.




Williams’ death underscores powerful link between depression, suicide

Robin Williams entertains U.S. troops stationed in Iraq in 2010.

Robin Williams entertains U.S. troops stationed in Iraq in 2010.

The death of brilliant comedian and actor Robin Williams shows how depression can devastate even someone with worldwide fame and success, mental health experts said Tuesday.

Williams, 63, died Monday of an apparent suicide. His publicist said Williams was battling severe depression. The actor who starred in such films as Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Morning, Vietnam had also struggled with alcohol and cocaine abuse.

Last month, Williams went into rehab at Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Minnesota, and was expected to stay there for several weeks.

His death “shows anybody can become suicidal, no matter how funny, comical and happy they may seem,’’ said Nadine Kaslow, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. “It shows that depression is a big risk factor for suicide.’’

The work of a comedian such as Williams, she said, “can be a cover for distress and pain underneath it.”

Suicide rates differ by age, gender and race, Kaslow said, with older white men at higher risk.

Kaslow said she hoped that Williams’ death leads more people into treatment for their illness.

The tools of psychotherapy and medication and substance abuse treatment “can be extremely helpful’’ in helping someone cope better and giving them hope, Kaslow said.


The damage of substance abuse


Dr. Bill Jacobs, an addiction medicine specialist at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, said Tuesday that Williams’ death “is not just about depression; it’s also about addiction.”

Abusing cocaine and alcohol over years “can really change [a person’s] brain,’’ Jacobs said.

Robin Williams at a 2011 movie premiere.

Adding a depressant drug such as alcohol with depression symptoms “is a setup for bad things to happen,’’ he added. The risk of suicide is much higher for someone with a substance abuse problem, “especially with a co-occurring psychiatric disorder.”

Mental health consumer advocates in Georgia said Tuesday that they were shocked by Williams’ death.

“It shows you how serious depression really can be,’’ said Ellyn Jeager of Mental Health America of Georgia.

Depression can affect people of all economic classes, she said. “Money doesn’t determine whether or not you’re well.”

Jeager said Williams’ death underscores the importance of getting treatment.

She said the state of Georgia has a good suicide prevention program, through the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, but she added that it needs more funding.


Recognizing depression symptoms


Pat Strode of the Georgia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said that the science of mental illness has advanced significantly in the past decades, but that more progress needs to be made. “There’s still not enough information about these illnesses,’’ Strode said. “There’s not enough treatment.’’

What should people do if they suspect they have depression?

Strode said people need to know the symptoms, and then seek treatment if they recognize they have signs of the illness.

The severity, frequency, and duration of depression symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the signs and symptoms of depression include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.

If insured, people with depression symptoms should visit a doctor or mental health specialist with their health plan, Strode said. But if they don’t have insurance, they can get help through the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 800-715-4225, she said.





Some unconventional health advice: Maybe you need a vacation

Getting away may be just what you need to relieve stress.

Getting away may be just what you need to relieve stress.

Is a vacation good for your mental health? And if so, is that a good enough reason to take one?

Most people enjoy out-of-town excursions. Lots of people take them annually. But as another summer begins to fade, many workers may be wondering if a vacation is worth the trouble and expense — especially in a time of high gas prices and airfares.

And modern travelers often face an added problem as they go on holiday: They take along their personal technology devices, allowing the stresses that they are trying to escape to follow them out of town.

Given all that, should you go or should you stay?

Many experts say you ought to take that trip if you possibly can.

“I’m certainly in favor of all vacations,” says Dunwoody psychologist Dr. Stan Hibbs. “I sometimes tell people that even a bad vacation is better than no vacation at all.”

Hibbs points to the shared memories that a getaway trip can provide. He says even the unpleasant experiences, such as bad weather or poor accommodations, can become part of family lore. (“Remember that dude ranch where the air conditioning didn’t work and the pool was closed?”)


The overworked American


Hibbs suggests that we Americans need to take better care of ourselves. We take much less vacation than other people in the industrialized world.

Every country in the European Union, for instance, requires that workers get at least four work weeks of paid vacation per year.

The United States, on the other hand, is the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday.

Of course, vacation is far from non-existent in the United States. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 77 percent of private-sector companies offer employees at least some paid vacation, and those workers get an average of 21 paid days, the Huffington Post reported last year. Many other working Americans are employed by the federal, state or local governments, which also offer vacations among their benefits.

Still, vacation is not the priority in America that it is in some other places. And that may be cause for concern.

Noted Dutch psychologist Jessica de Bloom says that until recently, vacations have been a somewhat neglected research topic, even though a vacation “is a presumably powerful weapon against work stress and its consequences.”

Another study from the Netherlands by Jeroen Nawijin and colleagues was designed to obtain a greater insight into the association between overall happiness and vacations.

The Grand Canyon is a popular vacation spot.

The Grand Canyon is a popular vacation spot.

These experts say that the more stressful the trip, the less you will benefit from being away.

They suggest that pre-trip happiness may come simply from planning the vacation. Many studies suggest that much of the fun is generally in the preparation stage, which is called a “mood booster.” Anticipating the enjoyment to come helps lift people’s spirits.

Occasionally, such anticipation can end in disappointment, says Hibbs. “If there’s a lot of conflict in the family, sometimes vacations can intensify it.” Many people can recall family reunions where everyone bickered as old grievances were revived over the dinner table.

When people plan a trip together, personality differences can be important to consider.

Hibbs talks about the widely known Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, with “J” and “P” personality types. The J personality is great at planning and the P person is more spontaneous, says Hibbs.

“The J wants to have everything organized in advance,” Hibbs says. For example, such a person “would never begin a trip” without making hotel reservations first.

“Conversely, the P personality,” says Hibbs, “would rather go with the experience.” They might say something like “let’s just drive until we’re tired and then find a place to stay.” The P craves spur-of-the-moment adventures.

It’s when P and J travel together that the “fun” begins, says Hibbs. But whether or not they always see eye to eye, even P and J need to get away from work, technology, bad news and mundane distractions.

“We [Americans] work long hours, take little time off, and then wonder why we are so tired and have so many health issues,” says Hibbs.

The joy of disconnecting


Nowadays, can we stand to get away from the technology that’s so much a part of our lives?

Psychologist Dr. Mikyta Daugherty, associate director of clinical services at the Georgia State University Counseling and Testing Center, says a recent trip she took shows that we can go technology-free and enjoy ourselves.

Although she was slow to adopt the habits of a techno-geek, Daugherty now describes herself as an “avid technology user.” She says in today’s academic environment, she relies on using a cellphone, a computer, a tablet, and even a “smart watch.”

Moraine Lake in Canada

Moraine Lake in Canada

“There is not much time that goes by without interacting with these gadgets in some way,” she says.

But briefly last year, she found herself doing without her devices. She took a three-day cruise and had no wireless Internet connection and no cellphone signal. It was her first holiday from the technology that had become so important in her life.

How did Daugherty feel about that “disconnected” interlude?

“It was the best vacation I’ve ever had,” she says. The sense of being away from it all, she says, made the cruise feel like the only true vacation she had ever taken.

“I did not touch my devices once,” she recalls. In fact, she says, she didn’t miss using them or even think about them until the cruise ship was pulling up to the dock upon her return.

“The fact that my attention had been so captivated was astounding to me — and refreshing,” Daugherty says. The effect was so powerful that she has already booked a seven-day cruise for the coming winter.

Research from de Bloom shows that the “effect of job stressors on health and well-being of employees has been well established.” Yet, at the same time, the findings show that vacation effects fade quickly.

Many studies note that vacations are a potentially powerful recovery opportunity. They can make the stress and pressure from everyday life disappear, if only temporarily.

Daugherty agrees. “A vacation is really just a mental experience that we should probably learn to do more often,” she says.


Judi Kanne, a registered nurse and freelance writer, combines her nursing and journalism backgrounds to write about public health. She lives in Atlanta.


Camp with a special focus gives comfort and fun to grieving children

Camp Magik helps grieving children deal with their loss.

Camp MAGIK provides grieving children with professional counseling and fun activities

Weekend sleepover camps for children can be about more than crafts and canoeing.

During the past two decades, Rene McClatchey has helped hundreds of  grieving youngsters recover from devastating losses.

Every year, McClatchey, an assistant professor of social work at Kennesaw State University, runs three weekend-long sessions called Camp “MAGIK,” an acronym for “Mainly About Grief In Kids.” Registration is open now for this year’s first camp, which takes place April 25-27 in Cartersville.

Supported by charitable donations and volunteers, all three camps are free. They are divided into two groups, one for ages 7 to 11 and the other for ages 12 to 17.

While the children spending the weekend at camp get professional counseling for grief, they also get a chance to just be kids having fun. They go swimming, climb a rope course and hike the foothills of North Georgia. “Diversions” are important for these kids in a very literal sense.

The camps are especially for children suffering from what professionals call “complicated grief,” a condition that differs from normal mourning but can be hard to identify.

Children can be hit so hard by loss that they question the value of their very existence, said McClatchey. “It’s thinking, ‘I don’t know how I can go on, life has no meaning anymore.’ ”

“It becomes complicated when these feelings keep hanging on and there is no relief from them,” said McClatchey. Her camps are intended to get kids past this point, to give them hope, and to keep them moving forward. Sometimes it can be difficult to know which kids need help.


The unrecognized need


“The kid that gets into trouble at school after Mom dies, he’ll be sent to camp because they know something is going on with him. But the kid who is quiet and overachieves is the one that I’m concerned about,” said McClatchey, “because you usually miss that one.”

CampMAGIK_KidRepressed grief can have devastating consequences down the line, including suicide.

It doesn’t help that our culture pressures people to get over loss quickly.

“We don’t allow people to stay in a state of bereavement for very long, whereas in other cultures there can be a whole year of mourning,” said Betsy Vonk, Ph.D., a professor of social work at the University of Georgia and McClatchey’s research collaborator.

The timing of the death and whether it could be anticipated determine how a family responds. McClatchey and Vonk recently published a study showing that treatment may be more effective if the cause of death is taken into account, and counseling is tailored to the individual in bereavement.

When a loved one’s death comes as a shock, Vonk said, survivors might be left with “some very complicated relationship dynamics that were unresolved when the person died, and the grieving person can’t let go because they’re still trying to sort it all out.”

Environmental factors can also complicate grieving, and McClatchey says many of Camp MAGIK’s kids come from inner-city neighborhoods. “They hear ambulance sirens more often and there are more gunshots. So they become hypervigilant.” Children from low-income families are less likely to have access to mental health services, too, and Camp MAGIK may be their only chance to receive professional counseling.


Parents welcome


“We accept based on need,” said McClatchey. “We have to give preference to those who have lost a parent or sibling.”

Roughly 55 to 60 kids attend each camp. McClatchey says it would not be therapeutic if the camps were any larger. Due to high demand, they do not accept repeat campers.

Besides Cartersville, the camps are held in Hampton and Clarkesville.

Although Camp MAGIK focuses on children, McClatchey says the experience also helps parents who come along for the weekend. In fact, parents are encouraged to attend.

“What happens is that the child won’t talk to the parent because they don’t want the parent to start crying, and the parent doesn’t talk to the child about the loss because the parent doesn’t want the child to cry,” said McClatchey. “We encourage them to grieve together and we encourage them to answer questions honestly.”

For more information, visit or call 404.790.0140. Thanks to a grant from The Moyer Foundation and other private donations, Camp MAGIK sessions are free for children. Reservations are necessary.


Andrew Lowndes is a graduate student pursuing an M.A. in health and medical journalism at Grady College at the University of Georgia. He studied neurobiology as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and hopes to explore mental health topics as a science writer.



Ex-addict helps former inmates escape the bondage of drugs

Charles Sperling (left) and Raymond Duke of STAND Inc., which provides services to former prisoners and people with HIV/AIDS

Charles Sperling (left) and Raymond Duke of STAND Inc., which provides services to former prisoners and people with HIV/AIDS.

Charles Sperling knows the torment and desperation of drug addiction.

More than 30 years ago, when he was young and living in New York, far from his Alabama roots, he got hooked on heroin.

In 1986, though, Sperling stopped using the drug and started to turn his life around. “I got drug-free and I got busy,’’ he recalls now.

He volunteered to help parolees dealing with their own addiction issues, “guys who were just struggling.’’

Now 64, Sperling runs STAND Inc., a Decatur-based nonprofit organization that serves people with substance abuse problems. He is its founder and CEO.

STAND (Standing to Achieve New Direction) helps former prisoners from Johnson State Prison in Wrightsville with re-entry into society, offering behavioral health services, housing and employment assistance.

It also works with jail inmates who have drug problems, runs a domestic violence program, and does HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. It offers free housing for clients trying to get back on their feet.

STAND’s success is reflected in a three-year, $1.2 million federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The nonprofit organization, established in 1999 by Sperling, serves more than 200 people a year. Many are among the most challenging patients, says Neil Kaltenecker, executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.

Helping those who need it most

“They have always been a program that has reached out to typically hard-to-reach populations –- men and women coming out of jail or prisons, with HIV/AIDS, with backgrounds of domestic violence,’’ Kaltenecker says. “They have done a remarkable job in engaging people and keeping them in services.’’

“Charles treats people with respect by meeting them where they are,’’ she says. “He does not assume that he has all of the answers for someone to get their life on track, but he is always willing to share where he has come from and to walk beside a person in support of where they want to go and how they want to get better.’’

One such person is Anthony Rivers, 60, who was addicted to crack cocaine, and now has been sober for eight years. He’s now a full-time employee of STAND, working as an intake coordinator.

Roderick Keith Arnold (left) and Anthony Rivers

Roderick Keith Arnold (left) and Anthony Rivers

“Had it not been for STAND, I would still be on the streets, if not dead,” Rivers tells a reporter in the organization’s offices in DeKalb County.

Roderick Keith Arnold, 52, enrolled in the program a year ago, after being addicted to alcohol and crack.

“There was a whole lot of fear going on,’’ Arnold says. “I just started listening to the staff.”

Arthur Stewart, 64, has a 40-year history of doing drugs — heroin, cocaine, crack.

“I relapsed about six months ago, and went through detox,” says Stewart, who adds that he has HIV and diabetes.

“STAND gave me another chance at life and dealing with psychological problems,’’ he says. “It brought me closer to God.”

Edward Purdy, 30, was addicted to methamphetamines and marijuana, and he came to the program from jail. “I was the problem, not the drugs,’’ he says.

STAND “has been a tremendous help for me,’’ Purdy says. “It brought me and my wife closer. I feel like I’m on a road home instead of a road of destruction.”

Artis Anderson, 47, says STAND has helped him deal with his guilt and shame. “I’ve been to 10 different programs,’’ he says. “STAND is the best program I’ve been in.’’

Fighting violence as well

Sperling notes that there is still a much greater need for substance abuse services than there are providers available.

Drugs always pose a challenge to society, he says, and he has witnessed the harm they do countless times. Recently, he has noticed an uptick in heroin use, the very problem that almost ruined his life all those years ago.

The organization has an annual budget of $1.3 million. It receives donations and grant funding, along with contracts with government agencies.

The domestic violence program is a recent addition. After six or seven group sessions, Sperling says, “you see these breakthroughs’’ in anger management and relationship skills.

“Anybody who comes in our door gets HIV testing for free,’’ he adds.

“We have different pathways for people to get services,” Sperling says. “That’s what I love about this agency.’’

“If a person is stable for six months, they have a good chance.’’

Though he’s now at what many would consider retirement age, Sperling shows no sign of pulling back on his work.

“I love what I do,’’ he says. “I don’t see a retirement where I go fishing. I see myself as a part of this as long as I have a passion for it.’’

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