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Treatment of Complicated Grief in Survivors of Suicide Loss: A HEAL Report

J Clin Psychiatry 2018;79(2):17m11592

Objective: Suffering associated with complicated grief (CG) is profound. Because suicide loss survivors are susceptible to developing CG, identifying effective treatments for suicide loss survivors with CG is a high priority. This report provides data on the acceptability and effectiveness of antidepressant medication and complicated grief therapy (CGT), a CG-targeted psychotherapy, for suicide loss survivors with CG identified by an Inventory of Complicated Grief score 30.

Methods: This is a secondary analysis of data collected from March 2010 to September 2014 for a 4-site, double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized trial comparing the effectiveness of antidepressant medication alone or in combination with CGT for participants with CG (score ≥ 30 on the Inventory of Complicated Grief) who were bereaved by suicide (SB; n = 58), accident/homicide (A/H; n = 74), or natural causes (NC; n = 263). Using mode of death as a grouping factor, we evaluated acceptability of treatments by comparing 12-week medication and 16-session CGT completion; we evaluated effectiveness by comparing response at week 20, defined by a score of 1 or 2 on the Complicated Grief Clinical Global Impressions-Improvement scale (CG-CGI-I), and additional secondary response measures.

Results: Among participants receiving medication alone, SB medication completion rates (36%) were lower than rates for A/H (54%) and NC (68%; χ2 = 11.76, P < .01). SB medication completion rates were much higher for SB individuals receiving CGT (82%; χ2 = 12.45, P < .001) than for SB individuals receiving medication alone. CGT completion rates were similar in the 3 groups (SB = 74%, A/H = 64%, NC = 77%; χ2 = 2.48, P = .29). For SB participants receiving CGT, CG-CGI-I response rates were substantial (64%), but lower compared to the other groups (A/H = 93%, NC = 84%; χ2 = 8.00, P < .05). However, on all other outcomes, changes from baseline for SB participants were comparable to those for A/H and NC participants, including number and severity of grief symptoms, suicidal ideation, and grief-related impairment, avoidance, and maladaptive beliefs.

Conclusions: These results raise concern about the acceptability of medication alone as a treatment for complicated grief in treatment-seeking suicide-bereaved adults. In contrast, CGT is an acceptable and promising treatment for suicide-bereaved individuals with complicated grief.

Trial Registration: identifier: NCT01179568