Early Childhood Bereavement Increases Risk of Psychotic Disorder

psychotic disorderExperiencing bereavement in early childhood induces a great amount of stress, which puts children at risk of developing a future psychotic disorder.[1]

“Suicide of a close family member brings the highest risk, ” said researchers, led by Professor Kathryn Abel of Manchester University, U.K. The researchers also reported that there is evidence that maternal stress can adversely affect infants, stating that “this has important implications for both public health and mental health.”1

The researchers investigated the impact of severe bereavement for the mother before conception until her child’s adolescence.1 Data was used from Swedish national registers, including births from 1973 to 1985, followed up until 2006.1 This included a total of 946,994 births.1

The researchers defined the following for psychosis for the study: “Non-affective psychosis (including schizophrenia) and affective psychosis (bipolar disorder with psychosis and unipolar depression with psychosis).”1

A third of the children were found to be exposed to a family death before the age of 13: 11,117 were from suicide, 15,189 from accidents, and 280,172 from natural causes.1

The researchers found that maternal bereavement during the period of six months before conception to birth did not affect the child’s risk of a future psychotic disorder.1 However, the risk did rise after the child was exposed to the loss of a close family member, especially between birth and age three.1 The risk did reduce as age of exposure increased.1

The risk was higher after a death in the immediate family, compared with the extended family, especially if the child was younger.1 This was especially true with suicide.1

“It is reasonable to suppose the impact of bereavement of a baby or small child is mediated by stress felt by the primary caregiver,” said the researchers. “Severe antenatal maternal stress was not associated with an increased risk of later severe mental illness in offspring, but loss of a parent or sibling in early childhood, especially after sudden death, was associated with an increased risk of psychosis in offspring. This has important implications for the identification of children at risk. Structures must be put in place to develop appropriately timed and appropriately resources interventions to support vulnerable children and their families.”1

Abel added, “Our research shows childhood exposure to death of a parent or sibling is associated with excess risk of developing a psychotic illness. This is particularly associated with early childhood. Further investigation is not required and future studies should consider the broader contexts of parental suicide and parental loss.”1

[1] Collingwood, J. (2014). Psychosis Risk from Early Childhood Bereavement. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 8, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/05/08/psychosis-risk-from-early-childhood-bereavement/69562.html

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