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Parental Suicide Increases Rate of Suicide and Psychiatric Disorders in Children

In the May 2010 issue of The Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the results of a large study at John Hopkins Children’s Center reveals that the suicide rate in children and adolescents who have a parent who also commited suicide is much higher. These children and adolescents also have a much higher rate of suffering from psychiatric disorders.

“Losing a parent to suicide at an early age emerges as a catalyst for suicide and psychiatric disorders,” says lead investigator Holly C. Wilcox, Ph.D., a psychiatric epidemiologist at Hopkins Children’s. “However, it’s likely that developmental, environmental and genetic factors all come together, most likely simultaneously, to increase risk.”

In the United States, each year, between 7,000 and 12,000 children lose a parent to suicide, the researchers estimate.

The current study looked at the entire Swedish population over 30 years, making it the largest one to date to analyze the effects of untimely and/or sudden parental death on childhood development.

U.S. and Swedish investigators compared suicides, psychiatric hospitalizations and violent crime convictions over 30 years in more than 500,000 Swedish children, teens and young adults (under the age of 25) who lost a parent to suicide, illness or an accident, on one hand, and in nearly four million children, teens and young adults with living parents, on the other.

Those who lost a parent to suicide as children or teens were three times more likely to commit suicide than children and teenagers with living parents. However there was no difference in suicide risk when the researchers compared those 18 years and older. Young adults who lost a parent to suicide did not have a higher risk when compared to those with living parents. Children under the age of 13 whose parent died suddenly in an accident were twice as likely to die by suicide as those whose parents were alive but the difference disappeared in the older groups. Children under 13 who lost a parent to illness did not have an increased risk for suicide when compared to same-age children with living parents.

In addition, those who lost parents to suicide were nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized for depression as those with living parents. And those who lost parents to accidents or illness had 30 and 40 percent higher risk, respectively, for hospitalization.

Losing a parent, regardless of cause, increased a child’s risk of committing a violent crime, the researchers found.

The researchers did not count suspected suicides, nor did they include children with psychiatric or developmental disorders who were treated before the parent’s death or as outpatients, meaning the effects of parental suicide may be even more profound than the study suggests.

Journal Reference:

  1. Holly C. Wilcox, Satoko J. Kuramoto, Paul Lichtenstein, Niklas Långström, David A. Brent, Bo Runeson. Psychiatric Morbidity, Violent Crime, and Suicide Among Children and Adolescents Exposed to Parental Death. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.jaac.2010.01.020

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