New research out of Sweden suggests that a mother's suicide may influence the risk for later suicide attempts in her children, even more so than the suicide of a father.
The research doesn't prove that suicides by parents, either the mother or the father, causes offspring to face a higher risk of trying to kill themselves. And the researchers noted that the number of offspring in the study who ended up hospitalised after a suicide attempt was small.
Still, "paediatricians, surviving parents and educators should be aware of the possible risk and provide appropriate referral sources for these children as needed," said study lead author S. Janet Kuramoto, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Previous studies have hinted that the children of parents who committed suicide were at higher risk of feeling suicidal themselves, but it wasn't clear if the problems were connected to the parent's suicide or to the fact that the parent died, whatever the cause, Kuramoto said. The authors of the new study sought to gain more insight.
They examined Swedish databases to discover what happened to 5,600 children whose mothers committed suicide and 17,847 whose fathers committed suicide during the years 1973-2003. The researchers compared that data to rates of children whose parents died in accidents.
The study findings are published in the journal Pediatrics.
After adjusting their statistics so they wouldn't be thrown off by signs of mental illness in the parents, the researchers found that the children of mothers who committed suicide were nearly twice as likely to be hospitalised in connection to a suicide attempt than those whose mothers died in accidents.
"This sounds like a pretty significant increase, but the majority of the offspring - over 95% - were not hospitalised for suicide attempts during the study period," Kuramoto stressed. Overall, "2% of the offspring who lost their mother in a fatal accident had a subsequent suicide-attempt hospitalisation, and 4% of the offspring who lost a mother to suicide," she said.
Suicide rare in women
One anomaly from the study was that children of fathers who had committed suicide do not appear to be at a significant higher risk of attempted suicide. It's not clear why the suicides of mothers, which were less common, may have had more of an effect than the suicides of fathers.
Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of books about suicide, offered one theory: suicide is rare in women, and "when it happens, it signals severe illness, even more so than it does in men." The illness could be a sign of genetic problems that the women may pass on to their kids, he said.
Do the Swedish study results suggest anything about the children of parents who kill themselves in the United States? It's hard to tell, Kuramoto said. The suicide rate is slightly higher in Sweden, especially among females, Kuramoto said, but universal health care also means that it's easier for Swedes to access mental health care.
While the study findings don't prove that the suicides of parents directly cause their kids to become more suicidal, they do suggest that "family members are connected, for better or worse, and have profound impact on one another," said suicide researcher M. David Rudd.
"Even the individual struggling with a mental illness, feeling alone, hopeless and insignificant, is anything but insignificant. The ripple effect of one life - and death - can endure through many lives and across many generations," said Rudd, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Science at the University of Utah.