The School of Social Work is partnering with a Chilean university to launch a grief facility in New York.
Last December, Katherine Shear, a psychiatry professor at the School of Social Work and the founder of Columbia’s Complicated Grief Program, outlined the collaboration with Guillermo Marshall Rivera, prorector of the Pontificia Universidad Católica.
Shear said that the goal of the new Chilean center, in addition to providing training to medical practitioners, is to “improve the lives of people with complicated grief,” a newly recognized condition that consists of an interrupted healing process following a close personal loss.
“The issue of grief is one that touches everyone, and it is particularly poignant in some ways in Chile,” Shear said.
Though she noted that very few universities have facilities for research and treatment of complicated grief, she said that the Universidad Católica “is very prominent in the area of psychotherapy research.”
Shear said that she contacted Karen Poniachik, director of Columbia’s Global Center in Santiago, to schedule a meeting with faculty from the Universidad. Then, on Dec. 18, Shear delivered a lecture in Chile to nearly 350 people about her research on the disorder before agreeing to the collaboration with the university.
Alex Behn, TC ’15, a Ph.D. student from Chile and a fellow at Columbia’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, said that the ability to diagnose complicated grief properly requires unique training.
“Complicated grief requires a very specialized treatment,” Behn said. “What’s important to understand is that complicated grief is a very complicated diagnosis that’s often misdiagnosed as depression.”
Behn, who attended Shear’s lecture in December, said that the collaboration will focus on training, but may evolve into research opportunities.
“The idea is to disseminate the treatment of complicated grief,” Behn said. “In the future, the schools will develop a research-based collaboration.”
The Universidad already collaborates with the Mailman School of Public Health, a partnership that led to the establishment of Pontificia’s Ph.D. program in epidemiology.
Additionally, the Chilean Global Center has an agreement in place with the Chilean government’s center for research to fund Chilean Ph.D. students at Columbia fully—including Behn.
“Chile is a developing country that provides many opportunities for researchers,” he said.
Shear, who first identified the complicated grief disorder in the mid-1990s with colleagues, established Columbia’s Program for Complicated Grief only in 2008.
She said that she is committed to expanding research across borders. Columbia’s Complicated Grief Program already has collaborations in place with universities in Japan, which focus on grief as a response to natural disasters and violent deaths, and universities in Norway, which specialize in suicide bereavement.
“We all have to gain from one another,” she said. “As we work together to learn more about complicated grief in other cultures, we almost by definition learn more about it in our culture as well.”