Sudden death of a parent may pose mental health risks for children, surviving caregivers

May 05, 2008

Children who had a parent who died suddenly have three times the risk of depression than those with two living parents, along with an increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) according to a report in the May issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

About 4 percent of children in Western countries experience the death of a parent, according to background information in the article. Parents who have psychiatric disorders, including mood disorders and substance abuse, are more likely to die from suicide, accidents and heart disease. The same psychiatric factors that increase parents’ risk of sudden death also predispose their children to similar mental health problems.

Nadine M. Melhem, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and colleagues identified 140 families in which one parent died of suicide, accident or sudden natural death. They were compared with 99 control families in which two parents were living and no first-degree relatives had died within the past two years. The offspring, ages 7 to 25, underwent interviews and assessments for psychiatric disorders, as well as a review of their parents’ psychiatric history.

Children whose parents had died, along with their surviving caregivers, were at higher risk for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than those in control families. This association remained after controlling for psychiatric disorders in the deceased parent. Children and caregivers in families where a parent had died of suicide were no more likely than those in families where a parent died of other causes to develop PTSD or other psychiatric disorders. Children’s symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal behavior and complicated grief (severe, lasting unhappiness) were associated with similar symptoms in surviving caregivers.

“Our findings have important clinical and public health implications,” the authors conclude. “The best way to attenuate the effect of parental bereavement among offspring is to prevent early death in their parents by improving the detection and treatment of bipolar illness, substance and alcohol abuse and personality disorders, and by addressing the lifestyle correlates of these illnesses that lead to premature death.”

When parents die, surviving caregivers should be monitored for depression and PTSD, since their psychiatric health affects that of children. “Given the increased risk of depression and PTSD, bereaved offspring should be monitored and, if needed, referred and treated for their psychiatric disorder,” the authors write. “Further studies are needed to examine the course and long-term effect of bereavement on offspring and their surviving caregivers, to test the mechanisms by which parental bereavement exerts these effects and to identify the subset of bereaved families who may require treatment, which can then frame targets for intervention and prevention efforts.”

Citation: Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008;162[5]:403-410.

Source: JAMA and Archives Journals

Explore further: New technology that is revealing the science of chewing

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Psychiatric experts assess parental alienation

Oct 02, 2010

(AP) -- The American Psychiatric Association has a hot potato on its hands as it updates its catalog of mental disorders - whether to include parental alienation, a disputed term conveying how a child's relationship ...

Wired SKorea to stem digital addiction from age 3

Nov 28, 2012

(AP)—Park Jung-in, an 11-year-old South Korean, sleeps with her Android smartphone instead of a teddy bear. When the screen beams with a morning alarm, she wakes up, picks up her glasses and scrolls through ...

Recommended for you

Obese British man in court fight for surgery

Jul 11, 2011

A British man weighing 22 stone (139 kilograms, 306 pounds) launched a court appeal Monday against a decision to refuse him state-funded obesity surgery because he is not fat enough.

2008 crisis spurred rise in suicides in Europe

Jul 08, 2011

The financial crisis that began to hit Europe in mid-2008 reversed a steady, years-long fall in suicides among people of working age, according to a letter published on Friday by The Lancet.

New food labels dished up to keep Europe healthy

Jul 06, 2011

A groundbreaking deal on compulsory new food labels Wednesday is set to give Europeans clear information on the nutritional and energy content of products, as well as country of origin.

Overweight men have poorer sperm count

Jul 04, 2011

Overweight or obese men, like their female counterparts, have a lower chance of becoming a parent, according to a comparison of sperm quality presented at a European fertility meeting Monday.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Low Vitamin D may not be a culprit in menopause symptoms

A new study from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) shows no significant connection between vitamin D levels and menopause symptoms. The study was published online today in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopa ...

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

(Phys.org) —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Tech giants look to skies to spread Internet

The shortest path to the Internet for some remote corners of the world may be through the skies. That is the message from US tech giants seeking to spread the online gospel to hard-to-reach regions.

Wireless industry makes anti-theft commitment

A trade group for wireless providers said Tuesday that the biggest mobile device manufacturers and carriers will soon put anti-theft tools on the gadgets to try to deter rampant smartphone theft.