Kids under the age of 18 who lose a parent are at an increased risk for committing suicide as adults, a new study suggests. According to research published online Nov. 11 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the risk is double that of those who did not experience a parental death as a child.
The study authors report that in Western societies 3 percent to 4 percent of children lose a parent, and that it is one of the most stressful and potentially harmful events in childhood. They noted that while most children and adolescents adjust and cope with the loss, others develop preventable social and psychological problems.
To gain a better understanding of suicide risk following the death of a parent during childhood and to find ways to improve prevention efforts, a Danish research team analyzed nationwide register data for 7.3 million people gathered from 1968 to 2008 in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. Led by Mai-Britt Guldin, PhD, of the department of public health at Denmark’s Aarhus University, the research team identified 180,094 children who had a parent die before they turned 18, and compared them to 1.8 million kids who did not lose a parent during their childhood.
Guldin and her team found that parental death during childhood was associated with a slight but significant increased risk for suicide in offspring, and that the risk remained for at least 25 years after the parent’s death. Specifically, 0.14 percent of the parent-loss group committed suicide compared with 0.07 percent of those who did not lose a parent during childhood.
Findings showed that the risk of suicide was high for children whose parents committed suicide as well as for children whose parents died of other causes. Most affected were boys whose mother died of suicide, first-born children, and kids who lost a parent before the age of 6. Overall, the risk for suicide was 4 in 1,000 people for boys and 2 in 1,000 for girls.
Although the authors acknowledged that their study is limited by the exclusion of information on such important risk factors as genetic influences, social networks and family lifestyles, they assert the study’s importance. “Our study points to the early mitigation of distress to reduce the risk of suicidal behavior among children who had a parent who died during childhood,” the research team concluded in a news release.
Matthew Lorber, MD, acting director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, agreed. “Although more research is needed looking at this topic, it is clear that we need to prioritize grief counseling and therapy for any child who has a parent die before the child turns 18, regardless of the cause of death,” Lorber told HealthDay.