Children who lose a parent to suicide more likely to die the same way

April 21, 2010
This is the study's principal investigator Holly Wilcox, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins Children's Center. Credit: Johns Hopkins Children's Center

Losing a parent to suicide makes children more likely to die by suicide themselves and increases their risk of developing a range of major psychiatric disorders, according to a study led by Johns Hopkins Children's Center that is believed to be the largest one to date on the subject.

A report on the findings will appear in the May issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

How and when the parent died strongly influenced their child's risk, the researchers report. And because the findings show that parental suicide affects and teens more profoundly than young adults, it is likely that environmental and developmental factors, as well as genetic ones, are at work in next-generation risk, the scientists say.

"Losing a parent to suicide at an early age emerges as a catalyst for suicide and ," 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."

The good news, the researchers say, is that though children in this group are at increased risk, most do not die by suicide, and non-genetic risk factors can be modified. And there may be a critical window for intervention in the aftermath of a parent's suicide during which pediatricians could carefully monitor and refer children for psychiatric evaluation and, if needed, care.

Family support is also critical, the investigators say.

"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."

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 may be even more profound than the study suggests.

More information: Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry -

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Elderly may face increased dementia risk after a disaster

October 24, 2016

Elderly people who were uprooted from damaged or destroyed homes and who lost touch with their neighbors after the 2011 tsunami in Japan were more likely to experience increased symptoms of dementia than those who were able ...

Research examines role of early-life stress in adult illness

October 24, 2016

Scientists have long known that chronic exposure to psychosocial stress early in life can lead to an increased vulnerability later in life to diseases linked to immune dysfunction and chronic inflammation, including arthritis, ...

Plan ahead for successful aging, researcher says

October 20, 2016

For many people, the prospect of aging is scary and uncomfortable, but Florida State University Assistant Professor Dawn Carr says that research reveals a few tips that can improve our chances of a long, healthy life.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.