Losing a parent as a child is difficult for anyone. Losing a parent to suicide can present even greater challenges for children to overcome in the grief process.
A recent study found that these children appear to be at a higher risk for committing suicide themselves, compared to other children who lose their parents prematurely.
However, the age of a child makes a difference in their risk of attempting suicide. Teens are at higher risk in the first few years after the parent's death. Younger children are at risk later on and as the years pass.
The study, led by S. Janet Kuramoto, PhD, MHS, from the Department of Mental Health at Bloomberg School of Public Health within Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, aimed to see whether children of parents who committed suicide were any more at risk of suicide than children who lost their parents to other circumstances.
The researchers included in the study 26,096 Swedish children whose parents had committed suicide and 32,395 children whose parents had died in accidents.
All the participants in the study were under 25 years old when their parents died and the deaths occurred in the time span from 1973 to 2003.
The children of the parents who died were divided into age groups for the study: 0-5 years old, 6-12 years old, 13-17 years old and 18-24 years old.
Specifically, the researchers looked at how much time passed before one of the children was admitted to the hospital for a suicide attempt, if they ever were admitted.
The researchers found that greatest risk for attempted suicide among children whose parents had committed suicide tended to be about five years after their parent's death.
Overall, children who had a parent commit suicide were more likely to attempt suicide earlier than children whose parents died prematurely of other accidental causes.
For example, among the children who were 0 to 5 years old when their parent committed suicide, 2.7 children per 1,000 attempted suicide in a single year. Among the children who lost their parents to other accidents, only 1.5 children per 1,000 attempted suicide in a single year.
Similar differences were seen among children who were older when they lost their parents. The children who were 6 to 12 years old when they lost a parent had a rate of 2.2 suicide attempts per 1,000 children if their parent committed suicide and 1.5 attempts if their parent died of other causes.
The rate of suicide attempts among teens whose parents committed suicide was 2 attempts per 1,000 teens in a year, compared to 1.7 attempts per 1,000 teens in a year among kids whose parents died in an accident.
Young adults who lost a parent to suicide had a rate of 1.8 attempts per 1,000 adults in a year, compared to 1.4 attempts per 1,000 adults in a year.
For the children who were younger when their parents killed themselves, the risk of suicide attempts for the child continued to rise as the years went on.
The children who were teens or young adults when their parents committed suicide, however, were at the highest risk for suicide themselves within one or two years of their parent's death. After two years, their risk of suicide declined.
"The results suggest critical windows for careful monitoring and intervention for suicide attempt risk, especially one to two years after parental death for the older age groups and over decades for childhood survivors of parental death," the researchers wrote.
The study was published December 10 in the Archives of General Psychiatry. The research was funded by an NARSAD Young Investigator Award and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.