Parents of Children Who Die by Suicide

February 13, 2015

News Type:  Weekly Spark, Weekly Spark Research

A large-scale study in Manitoba revealed that parents whose offspring (adult and minor children) died by suicide, as well as parents whose children died in motor vehicle collisions (MVC), are at greater risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and marital breakup than other parents. The suicide-bereaved parents also showed significantly higher “mental and physical health vulnerability” before the deaths of their children (although the risks increased after the suicides). Prior to the deaths of their children, the risk levels of MVC-bereaved parents do not differ from those of the control parents (i.e. parents whose children did not die).

The prevalence of depression among suicide-bereaved parents in the two years prior to the deaths of their children was 14.6 percent compared to 10.5 percent among the control parents. The rate of alcohol abuse among suicide-bereaved parents before their children’s suicides was three times that of control parents. The authors suggest that the elevated risk among suicide-bereaved parents “may be partially explained by the shared genetic or environmental factors between parent and offspring that predispose both to mental disorders.”  They also note that “an alternative consideration is that parents may have been experiencing stress-related psychopathology secondary to the factors that led to the suicide of their offspring, such as psychiatric illness or stressful life events.”

The risk levels of suicide-bereaved parents escalated after the suicide. The prevalence of depression doubled in the two years after the suicide. These parents experienced a 60 percent increase in the rate of overall mental disorders as well as significant increases in the rates of single marital status (a proxy for divorce), cancer, and diabetes. None of these increases occurred in the control group within a similar two-year period. Rates of drug and alcohol abuse did not increase after the suicides (although the authors suggest that this might be because parents conceal substance problems).

MVC-bereaved parents were included in the study “to determine whether suicide bereavement differs from bereavement related to another sudden cause of death.” The effects of the death of a child on risk for both suicide-bereaved and MVC-bereaved were similar with some significant exceptions. Although hospitalization rates for mental illness were similar for both parent groups before the death of their children, after the deaths, “suicide-bereaved parents were hospitalized at a rate almost double that of the MVC-bereaved parents.” However, the increase in the rate of depression among MVC-bereaved parents was significantly greater than that of suicide-bereaved parents. The authors suggest that this may result from the fact that the traffic-related deaths were not expected, and thus more “shocking” than suicides, which often are preceded by mental health and behavioral problems.

This summary is based on: Bolton, J.M., Au, W., Leslie, W.D., Martens, P.J., Enns, M.W, Roos, L.L.,… and Sareen, J. (2013). Parents bereaved by offspring suicide: A population-based longitudinal case-control study. JAMA Psychiatry 70(2): 158-167.