In brief: Mental illness and the death of a child

In brief

Mental illness and the death of a child

The loss of a child is one of the most severe forms of stress, on a par with the death of a husband or wife or the loss of a parent in childhood. A large survey based on Danish records shows that for some, it can lead to psychiatric hospitalization. Researchers studied the records of more than a million people during a 30-year period and found 20,000 first psychiatric hospital admissions. The death of a child under age 18 raised the risk of psychiatric hospitalization by 78% in mothers and 38% in fathers. For depression, the most common cause of hospitalization, the excess was 91% for women and 61% for men. Parents were also more likely to be hospitalized for schizophrenia and substance abuse after a child's death.

The effect was greatest in the first year, raising the risk more than six times for mothers. Five years later, the rate of psychiatric hospitalization for mood disorders was still 33% higher than average in women. The trend was similar for fathers, although the numbers were smaller.

Large families afforded some protection. Loss of an only child raised the risk most, and the greater the number of children, the less the excess risk. But neither the age of the child at death nor the age of the parents affected the psychiatric hospitalization rate. Hospitalization for a mood disorder was slightly more likely when the child was older at the time of death, but the age of the parent made no difference.

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