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Grief over bereavement hits Danes hard

A comprehensive study by Aarhus researchers shows that suicide, self-harm and psychiatric illness can be the consequences of grief over the death of close relatives. Data from 1.5 million Danes is included in the register study, which can contribute to new practices in the area of prevention.

2017.06.07 | Kirsten Olesen

New study suggests a preventive effort should be made for people who experience a death in the near family and who are already psychologically vulnerable.

If an adult Dane loses a child, the risk of developing a psychiatric illness is greater than usual. For every 1,000 people, an additional 19 would be admitted due to psychiatric illness than if they had not experienced such a bereavement. Correspondingly, 16 more would be admitted with a psychiatric illness if their spouse died compared to those who did not lose a spouse in the same period.

This is shown by a new, comprehensive study of health data for all Danes over the age of 18 who have lost a child, a spouse, siblings or parents during the period 1995-2013.

The study looks at three specific consequences in connection with the grief resulting from the death of a close relative. These are suicide, self-harm and psychiatric illness. The results have recently been published in the scientific journal World Psychiatry. 

"We have looked at vulnerable groups in a whole population and we believe we can now contribute with specific knowledge about a field that has thus far mostly worked on assumptions or data from smaller, selected groups," says Grief Researcher and Postdoc Mai-Britt Guldin from the Research Unit for General Practice at Aarhus University. She is behind the major study together with researchers from the Department of Public Health at Aarhus University.

"Our very large volume of data clearly increases our knowledge of how vulnerable groups react to loss, and this can help healthcare professionals to identify those who are in need of help at an early stage when dealing with bereavement."

Is bereavement most difficult for the old or the young?

Specifically, the researchers have processed data about Danes who have lost a child, a spouse, siblings or parents and who are at the same time registered in the healthcare system in connection with suicide, hospitalisations for psychiatric illness or self-harm such as attempted suicide.

Concurrently with the study of the health-related consequences of grief for the defined groups, the researchers have looked at the involved people's age and asked the question: Is bereavement most difficult for the old or the young?

"The figures clearly show that young people under the age of 39 are particularly vulnerable when they lose a spouse. At the same time, the figures show that it hits hardest – measured using the categories that we have looked at – if you are under the age of 49 and lose a child," says Mai-Britt Guldin.

"But the most vulnerable of all are people who have previous psychiatric illness; one in three of them develop a new illness or relapse within the first year after they have experienced the type of bereavement that we have focused on."

The study also shows that the risk is the same for men and women. However, the way in which the two genders react differs: More men than women commit suicide, while more women than men attempt to.

New knowledge can help targeted prevention

Mai-Britt Guldin concludes that on the basis of the new knowledge there can be good grounds to introduce preventive measures, particularly for people who are already psychologically vulnerable when they experience bereavement in the immediate family. And especially if the bereavement is sudden in the form of e.g. road traffic accidents, suicide or murder.

"Our hope is that in the long term, this new knowledge can be used to prevent suicide, suicide attempts and other forms of psychiatric illness among those who are grieving, instead of waiting until they themselves come into contact with the system because they have become ill and need long-term treatment," she says. 

She adds that the new study will also be able to contribute to a more precise diagnosis of grief that can help avoid mistakenly treating vulnerable people for post-traumatic stress or depression, if they are in reality grieving over a big loss in their life. 

The research results – more information


Grief researcher, Postdoc Mai-Britt Guldin
The Research Unit for General Medical Practice, Aarhus University
Mobile: (+45) 6114 4884

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