Hospitalization for mental illness among parents after the death of a child

N Engl J Med. 2005 Mar 24;352(12):1190-6. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa033160.


Background: The loss of a child is considered one of the most stressful events in the life of a parent. We hypothesized that parental bereavement increases the risk of hospital admission for a psychiatric disorder, especially for affective disorders.

Methods: We studied a cohort of 1,082,503 persons identified from national registers in Denmark who were born between 1952 and 1999 and had at least one child under 18 years of age during the follow-up period, from 1970 to 1999. Parents who lost a child during follow-up were categorized as "bereaved" from the date of death of the child.

Results: As compared with parents who did not lose a child, parents who lost a child had an overall relative risk of a first psychiatric hospitalization for any disorder of 1.67 (95 percent confidence interval, 1.53 to 1.83). Bereaved mothers had a higher relative risk of being hospitalized for any psychiatric disorder than bereaved fathers (relative risks, 1.78 [95 percent confidence interval, 1.60 to 1.98] and 1.38 [95 percent confidence interval, 1.17 to 1.63], respectively; P value for interaction, 0.01). The relative risks of hospitalization specifically for affective disorders were 1.91 (95 percent confidence interval, 1.59 to 2.30) and 1.61 (95 percent confidence interval, 1.15 to 2.27) for bereaved mothers and fathers, respectively. Among mothers, the relative risk of being hospitalized for any psychiatric disorder was highest during the first year after the death of the child but remained significantly elevated five years or more after the death.

Conclusions: The risk of psychiatric hospitalization was increased among parents, especially mothers, who lost a child.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Bereavement*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Death*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Hospitalization / statistics & numerical data*
  • Hospitals, Psychiatric
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Life Change Events*
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Mood Disorders / epidemiology
  • Parents / psychology*
  • Registries
  • Regression Analysis
  • Risk
  • Schizophrenia / epidemiology
  • Sex Factors
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology