Death of loved one in childhood increases risk of adult psychosis

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Children who lose loved ones more likely to have psychosis as adults.

It’s always painful to lose a loved one, but for those who have lost a family member during childhood, the pain can last long into adult. Indeed, a new study published in the British Medical Journal says that there is a small, but significant risk of developing psychosis for children who have experienced the death of a close family member.

Previous studies have also suggested that psychological stress, including bereavement, in a pregnant mother can affect her unborn baby.

While there are numerous factors that contribute to the mental health of an adult, including genetics and the environment individuals grew up in as a child, this new study set out to find any evidence that might prove a mother’s psychological stress – including stress from losing a loved one – could be passed onto her children, as well as a developing fetus.

The researchers looked for a link between a mother’s bereavement and her children. As a result, they found that children born to mothers who suffered severe grief over the lost of a loved one, had a greater chance of having symptoms of psychosis as adults – and this was for children born either before, during or after the mother’s period of mourning.

The study involved the medical records of 946,994 individuals born between 1974 and 1985 in Sweden, which the researchers reviewed and analyzed.

The researchers then identified mothers who had experienced the death of a close family member anywhere between 6 months prior to becoming pregnant and up to 13 years following the birth of their child. The researchers also considered the cause of death when these mothers grieved the loss of their family member.

Among the children in the study, 321,249 (or 33 percent) had lost a close family member to death before the age of 13.


Although the researchers did not find any link between bereavement during pregnancy and their children’s mental health, they did find that 1,323 (or 0.4 percent) of the children who experienced a family death before 13, went on to develop a delusional form of psychosis as adults, such as schizophrenia, whereas another 556 (0.17 percent) later developed “affective” psychosis, which is an emotional disorder, such as bipolar disorder.

Because the researchers looked at the timing of the mother’s bereavement, they were able to determine that her grief did not appear to affect her unborn child’s future mental health, a finding that is contrary to previous research on the affect of a pregnant mother’s stress on her fetus.

Nevertheless, the researchers did find a slightly higher risk of developing psychosis as adults in children who had experienced the death of a close family member before the age of 13.

The study also found that children who had lost a family member due to suicide were especially at risk for suffering mental problems later on – and the younger the child was at the time of the suicide, the higher their risk of developing psychosis later on.

In the meantime, there are additional factors during childhood that can raise their risk of developing psychosis as adults, including childhood abuse, neglect, bullying and socioeconomic status.

Such factors may also have influenced the results in the study because, as atrocious as childhood abuse, neglect and bullying are, they are difficult to measure in a study of this nature.

In addition, the study just looked at the effect of a close family member’s death on children born in Sweden, which does not represent an ethnically diverse population. It is therefore difficult to see how bereavement might affect psychological development in other cultures and parts of the world where more support is provided to families who have lost loved ones.

Accordingly, the researchers are hopeful that their study will at least shed light on some of the childhood factors the contribute to adult psychosis, including how the death of a close family member for a child can have lasting consequences without “appropriately resourced interventions” to provide children the support they need after losing a loved one.

SOURCE: Severe bereavement stress during the prenatal and childhood periods and risk of psychosis in later life: population based cohort study, Abel KM, Heuvelman HP, Jörgensen L, et al, doi: 10.1136/bmj.f7679, published 21 January 2014.