Family Rights Association
- The Risks To Which Our Courts Expose Our Children
- Psychiatric Illness
Copyright (c) 1999 Reuters Reproduced under the Fair Use exceptions of 17 U.S.C. 107
Early parental loss a risk factor for adult psychiatric illness
Children who lose a parent early in life, either by death or permanent
separation, appear more likely than others to develop schizophrenia, depression or bipolar
disorder as adults. The finding comes from a large Israeli case-control study
involving nearly 80 patients each with major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
and an equal number of healthy controls. Study director, Dr. B. Lerer of Hadassah-Hebrew
University Medical Center in Jerusalem, Israel, and a multicenter team found that the
rates of parental loss during childhood were significantly higher among patients with
psychiatric disorders in this population than in controls. Specifically, loss of a parent
during childhood significantly increased the risk of major depression in adulthood by
3.8-fold, according to a report in the February 13th issue of Molecular Psychiatry.
Parental loss during childhood was 2.6 times more likely in participants with bipolar
disorder and 3.8 times more likely in those with schizophrenia compared with controls. The
effect of parental loss on the development of psychiatric disorders was more striking if
the loss was due to permanent separation rather than death, and if the loss occurred
before the age of 9 years. And, "[a]lthough not significant in this analysis, loss of
mother had a stronger effect than loss of father in patients with [major depression], as
did loss of both parents," Dr. Lerer and others note. Early parental loss also
significantly increased the risks of smoking, physical illness, divorce, lower income and
living alone in later life. The findings add early parental loss to the list of known
environmental factors that increase susceptibility to major depression, schizophrenia and
bipolar disorder. In fact, the Israeli team speculates that early parental loss may be a
nonspecific risk factor for psychiatric illness in adulthood, with a degree of specificity
for major depression and schizophrenia. One possible explanation for this association,
they propose, is that early parental loss negatively effects responsiveness to stress in
adulthood. In a related editorial, Dr. C. B. Nemeroff, of Emory University in Atlanta,
Georgia, comments that the findings add to accumulating evidence that "...untoward
life events early in life... appear to increase vulnerability to several major psychiatric
disorders including affective and anxiety disorders." Such "untoward
events" include both parental loss and child abuse and neglect, he notes.
"Perhaps these data will lend support for the call for a national study of the
prevalence rate of child abuse and neglect," Dr. Nemeroff hopes. He adds, "We
owe it to our patients, our children and ourselves."
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