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Losing a Child Increases Risk of Mental Illness

Moms Are More Likely to Be Hospitalized Than Dads
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WebMD Health News

March 23, 2005 - There is no greater loss than the loss of a child. It is like losing your future, says Wayne Loder, whose only two children died in a car accident 14 years ago last Sunday.

"Your children are your legacy. They are your contribution to the future," Loder tells WebMD. "If there is any grief that you live with for the rest of your life, it is the death of your child."

Research from Denmark has shown that the loss of a child increases a parent's own risk of dying, with the risk of death for mothers increasing fourfold in the first years following the event.

Now the same research team is reporting that the risk of mental illness is much greater among parents who have lost a child. And once again the risk was greater for bereaved moms than dads.

Risk Greatest in First Year

The investigators reviewed the health records of more than a million Danish citizens to compare the rate of psychiatric hospitalizations among parents.

Bereaved parents were 70% more likely to be hospitalized for a first psychiatric admission compared with parents that had not lost a child.

They found that for any psychiatric disorder, bereaved mothers had an almost 80% increase in hospitalization risk compared with an almost 40% increase in bereaved fathers.

The risk of hospitalization due specifically to depression-related causes was almost double for bereaved mothers and 60% higher for bereaved dads.

The risk of being hospitalized for any psychiatric problem was greatest in the year following the loss of a child, but it remained elevated for five years. And parents who lost their only child were more likely to be hospitalized than those with surviving children.

The study was published in the March 24 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

San Francisco grief and loss counselor Gloria Horsley, PhD, RN, says she is not surprised that hospitalizations were highest during the first year after the loss of a child. In addition to depression, parents tend to exhibit manic symptoms during that first year. They don't eat or sleep well, and they may not fully accept that their child is gone.

"I think of that first year as something like a tantrum," she says. "We are all taught that we can get what we want if we just go for it. But when a child dies you are powerless. You can't change it."

Horsley knows only too well. She says her training as a psychiatric nurse and therapist did not make it easier when her 17-year-old son died in a car wreck in 1983.

"When Scott died I watched myself go through the process kind of like a fly on the wall," she says. "I knew exactly what I was doing but couldn't stop myself."

Early on she experienced unbearable pain and shortness of breath and often caught herself looking for her son in a crowd. She also experienced guilt, consumed with thoughts that she could have somehow done something to change what happened.

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