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Children’s loss of parents doubles the risk of suicide

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Posted November 13, 2015

A new study from Aarhus University shows that losing a mother or father before you reach the age of eighteen can have serious consequences later in life. More than 7.3 million people from Denmark, Sweden and Finland are included in the study, which focuses on the biggest consequence: suicide.

Boys are the most vulnerable group of children who have experienced the death of a mother or father.

Boys are the most vulnerable group of children who have experienced the death of a mother or father.

If a child experiences the death of either their father or mother, this may have an impact on the child’s mental health over many years. Perhaps the child will become depressed over time, or maybe socially affected– while for some the bereavement ends in suicide.

A comprehensive registry study from Aarhus University now shows for the first time on such a large scale that the affected children have an increased risk of committing suicide later in life, when compared to children who have not experienced the death of a parent.
The risk is particularly high if the death of a parent is also caused by suicide.

“We don’t know whether the acute stress early in life is what leads to suicidal behavior. And we don’t know whether there is a genetic aspect, that is, whether your mother or father committing suicide is passed on to the children via genes. But children are at greater risk regardless of the cause of death of the parent,” says MSc in psychology, PhD Mai-Britt Guldin from Aarhus University.

“However, we can see that the greatest consequences arise for very young children who experience the loss of a father or mother – and that the earlier this happens, the greater impact in relation to the tendency towards suicide. So despite the fact that very young children do not fully understand death, it can still have major consequences for them later in life,” she says.

Small boys are particularly vulnerable

A total of 7.3 million Danes, Swedes and Finns born in the period from 1968 to 2008 comprise the study population for the study, which has just been published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. Of these, 200,000 (3%) lost a parent before they turned 18, and of these 265 committed suicide.

The greatest number of suicides took place when the children concerned were teenagers or in the beginning of their twenties. Twice as many boys as girls go through with it. Specifically this means that four boys out of every 1,000 boys who have lost a parent commit suicide, while the corresponding figure for girls is two girls out of every 1,000 girls.

“We know that suicide – in contrast to attempted suicide – is generally more prevalent among young men than it is among girls, and we can now objectively see that the mental health of boys is also at greater risk in connection with the death of a parent,” says Mai-Britt Guldin.

“In other words, on the basis of the new study we can conclude that the most vulnerable group of children who have experienced the death of a mother or father, are (1) boys, (2) children who lose a parent before they turn six, and finally (3) boys who lose their mother.”

Mai-Britt Guldin adds that on the other hand, the children’s’ environment does not seem to be of decisive importance in this context – including factors such as level of education and economic and social conditions.

“So for example, some of the Danish children who lose parents early, appear not to receive the help they should when it comes to suicide prevention,” she says.

The study from Aarhus University is carried out in collaboration with researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland, and the Nordic School of Public Health in Sweden.

A very large part of the children born in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland in the period from 1968 to 2008, comprise the control population in the study. The 200,000 children who lost a parent in the period were followed for up to forty years.

See the article Suicide in persons who lost a parent during childhood – a population-based cohort study in JAMA Psychiatry.

Source: Aarhus University

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