People are social beings who need each other to thrive emotionally, and the sudden loss of a loved one can throw that stability out of balance. The death of a child, close relative or trusted friend is one of the most difficult life experiences people go through. While there are mental health resources available for those who have lost a loved one and are grieving, some people do not receive the care they need.
That may explain the findings from a recent study conducted by researchers at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the study found that the death of a loved one drastically increased the risk of mental illnesses in adults. While the study did not prove a direct causation between the loss of a close friend or relative, it may serve as a screening tool for future at-risk patients.
Examining the data
Navigating the emotional space of a loved one’s death is never easy, but the study indicates that certain adults have a more difficult time of it than others. The study incorporated data from 27,534 individuals who supplied information to the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Between 20 percent and 30 percent of the participants listed the sudden death of a loved one as the most traumatic experience of their lives. Even among people who listed 11 or more traumatic events in their lifetimes, a loved one’s unexpected death still ranked first 22 percent of the time.
After selecting out prior psychiatric diagnoses, other traumatic experiences, sex, race and demographic information, the researchers found that the sudden death of a loved one had a significant effect on the presence of mental health issues in adults over 30 years. Among 30- to 50-year-olds, the prevalence of mental health conditions roughly doubled. Among 50- to 70-year-olds, this risk was five times greater. People under 30 years did not show any significant changes in mental health.
The risk of conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and various phobias increased after the death of a loved one. PTSD showed the largest jump regardless of age group, with an increase as high as 30 times that of people who have not experience the loss of a loved one.
Screening for mental health issues
Though the study did not imply any direct causation between the death of a loved one and the development of a mental illness, Katherine Keyes, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and principal investigator, believes that the findings could be used to identify higher risks of mental health conditions before they occur.
“Clinically, our results highlight the importance of considering a possible role for loss of close personal relationships through death in assessment of psychiatric disorders,” Keyes said in a statement. “When someone loses a close personal relationship, even late in life, there is a profound effect on sense of self and self-reflection … Even in adults with no history of psychiatric disorders, it is also a vulnerable risk period for the onset of a potentially disabling psychiatric disorder.”
Keyes also explained that the onset of mental illnesses after the death of a loved one may be delayed, only developing years after the event in question. In these cases, it is imperative that people seek professional help for any latent conditions. HelpGuide.org explained that therapists and psychiatrists are experienced in identifying the warnings signs of a potential mental health issue and can connect people with helpful resources so they can manage their emotional well-being.