A recent report in the “Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry” indicates that children or adolescents that lose a parent to suicide are more likely to commit suicide themselves. In fact, a study conducted in Sweden found that when children under the age of 13 lost a parent due to suicide, those children were twice as likely to commit suicide as other children.
According to the Surgeon General, suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents, and according to the Child Welfare League of America it is the 11th leading cause of death among children ages 10 to 14. Anything that increases the risk of suicide among young people is worth noting, of course.
Not all children or adolescents that commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness, but about 90 percent do. Likewise, not all adults that commit suicide are mentally ill, but many are. Since many mental illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder tend to run in families, it make sense that if parents commits suicide, their children may also be mentally ill and at increased risk for suicide. In fact, the Surgeon General reports that as many as 50 percent of children diagnosed with depression have a family history of the disorder.
Studies also show that a stressful life event often precedes a suicide attempt in children and adolescents, and certainly the death of a parent, especially due to suicide, is a stressful life event. Children or adolescents that lose a loved one, whether a parent, friend, or other family member, to suicide may come to view suicide as an acceptable way to deal with problems or depression.
Children that lose a parent to suicide should be assessed for signs of depression or other psychological problems. If problems are identified, they should be treated.
Any child that loses a parent, whether the child has depression or another psychological disorder or not, should receive supportive services like group and individual therapy. Attending a support group with other children that have lost parents, especially due to suicide, is often very helpful. Caregivers of these children should be educated about signs of depression to watch for and instructed about what to do if they notice signs of trouble.
Holly C. Wilcox, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Hopkins Children’s Hospital, says support from existing family members is critical after a child loses a parent to suicide. Family members may need support themselves, of course, in the face of such a loss. They can also be educated about how to best support the children or teens at risk.
Digital Journal. http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/291129. Children Whose Parents Commit Suicide Apt to Do the Same.
Surgeon General. http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/mentalhealth/chapter3/sec5.html. Depression and Suicide in Children and Adolescents.
Child Welfare League of America. http://www.cwla.org/articles/cv0311poison.htm. The Poison Within.