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Mental Health Center

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Losing a Child Increases Risk of Mental Illness

Moms Are More Likely to Be Hospitalized Than Dads
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.

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