According to a new study by Scandinavian researchers, the death of a parent is linked to an increased risk of suicide in the bereaved child. The findings were published online on November 11 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
The study authors note that the loss of a parent from suicide during childhood is associated with an increased risk of suicide in their children; however, little is known about the long-term risks of suicide after the loss of a parent from other causes. They suggested that a better understanding of this association might facilitate suicide prevention efforts. Therefore, the researchers assessed the long-term risks of suicide after parental death and how the risks differed by cause of parental death while accounting for major potential confounding variables (factors that could skew the data).
The study group comprised 7,302,033 individuals from three Scandinavian nations from 1968 through 2008. The data was obtained from nationwide registers. The researchers identified 189,094 children (2.6%) who had a parent who died before the child was 18 years of age. Each bereaved child was matched by sex and age to 10 children who did not have a parent who died before they reached 18 years of age (total: 1.890,940 children). Both groups were followed for up to 40 years. Statistical analysis was conducted that took into consideration age at parental death, gender, time since bereavement, maternal/paternal death, birth order, family history of psychiatric illness, and socioeconomic status. The data analyses were finalized on June 24, 2015.
The investigators found that during follow-up, 265 bereaved individuals (0.14%) and 1,342 non-bereaved individuals (0.07%) died of suicide. The increased risk was 3.44-fold for children who had a parent who died of suicide and 1.76-fold for children who had a parent who died of other causes. The risk tended to be higher for children who had a parent who died before they reached 6 years of age, and the increased risk remained high for at least 25 years. During 25 years of follow-up, the absolute risk of suicide was 4 per 1,000 persons for boys who experienced parental death and 2 per 1,000 persons for girls who experienced parental death.
The authors concluded that parental death in childhood is, irrespective of cause, linked with an increased long-term risk of suicide. They stressed that the consequences of parental death in childhood are far-reaching, and suicide risks may be influenced by early-life conditions. They recommended that future public health efforts should consider helping highly distressed children to cope with bereavement.
The researchers are affiliated with Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark; National Institute for Health and Welfare, Helsinki, Finland; Nordic School of Public Health, Gothenburg, Sweden; and Karolinska Institutet, Solna, Stockholm, Sweden.
Take home message:
If you or a loved-one experienced the death of a parent during childhood, be aware of the increased suicide risk. Knowledge of the increased risk can facilitate awareness, recognition of suicidal tendencies, and prevention.