A Parent's Suicide may Increase Offspring's Risk for Psychiatric Disorders and Suicide

APRIL 23, 2010
Children who lose a parent to suicide are more likely to die the same way and are at an increased risk for developing a number of psychiatric disorders, according to the results of a new study from Johns Hopkins Children’s Center researchers, led by Holly C. Wilcox, PhD, psychiatric epidemiologist, Children’s.
 
The study involved a team of US and Swedish investigators who examined suicides, psychiatric hospitalizations, and violent crime convictions over 30 years in two groups of children. The first included more than 500,000 Swedish children, teens and young adults under 25 who lost a parent to suicide, illness or an accident, and the second group was composed of nearly four million children, teens, and young adults with living parents.
 
During the study, which is believed to be the largest one to date on the subject, the researchers found that offspring who lost a parent to suicide as a child or teen were three times as likely to commit suicide as other children and teens with living parents, and almost twice as likely to be hospitalized for depression. Children and teens who lost a parent suddenly in an accident were also twice as likely to die by suicide. Conversely, children under age 13 years who lost a parent to illness did not have an increased suicide risk when compared to children of roughly the same age who had living parents. Also, these results were not observed in participants age 18 years or older who had experienced the same events.
 
According to Wilcox, who is also lead author of the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry article on the study, a number of factors may influence these findings, and there are a number of ways to mediate the increased risk of suicide for these children and teens.
 
“Losing a parent to suicide at an early age emerges as a catalyst for suicide and psychiatric disorders,” said Wilcox. “However, it’s likely that developmental, environmental and genetic factors all come together, most likely simultaneously, to increase risk.”
 
In addition, though these children are at an increased risk, most do not die by suicide, according to the researchers, and a number of non-genetic risk factors can be modified with careful monitoring in the aftermath of a parent’s suicide. Family support is also critical.
 
“Children are surprisingly resilient,” Wilcox says. “A loving, supporting environment and careful attention to any emerging psychiatric symptoms can offset even such major stressor as a parent’s suicide.”


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