Maternal bereavement may affect children’s adult mental health


There is a small but significant increase in psychosis risk for people who suffer the loss of a family member in childhood. Many factors contribute to adult mental health. Certainly, adult health can be influenced by the genes, environment and lifestyle. New studies are showing that maternal stress during pregnancy can also have a lasting effect. Following up on this thought of maternal stress affecting the offspring, this new study looked at the impact of maternal bereavement before, during and after pregnancy. Researchers analyzed the medical records of 946,994 people born between 1973 and 1985. One-third of the children in the study experienced a family death before the age of 13.

Bereavement before or during pregnancy had no real impact

When assessing the mental health of these children, they found that 0.4% later developed a delusional or “non-affective” psychosis like schizophrenia while 0.17% went on to develop an emotional disorder or “affective” psychosis like bipolar disorder. They determined that mothers who suffered a bereavement before or during their pregnancy were not more likely than usual to have children who would develop psychosis. “Previous findings relating to risk of schizophrenia or other illnesses have not been very strong and often were only seen in particular groups, such as those without a history of psychosis already in the family, or only in men,” said Kathryn Abel, lead author of the study.

Bereavement during childhood saw a slight increase

Researchers did measure a small increased risk of people developing psychosis who had experienced the death of a family member in their childhood. The risk increased with suicide and increased the earlier the death took place in a child’s life. Still, it’s difficult to measure the level of psychological stress in the family.

Many contributing factors

Results varied when the death was that of an older person or terminally ill person where the death could be viewed as a release. Socioeconomic status, neglect abuse and bullying can all have an effect on adult mental health and make the accuracy of the study difficult to know.

This study was conducted in Sweden. Dr. Abel noted that “in non-Western populations, some societies might provide more support to bereaved families, or manage death and bereavement across society so it is less stressful and has less broad consequences on childhood.” Or the opposite could be true as well.

Source: MedicalNewsToday, BMJ

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