An overwhelmingly serious public health concern has been detailed in a study led by Roger T. Webb, Ph.D. of the Center for Mental Health and Safety at the University of Manchester in England, as Dr. Webb and his team examined the associations between parental psychiatric disease and attempted suicide and acts of violence among their children.
A panoply of mental disorders in parents was included in the study, such as dementia, alcoholism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety, antisocial personality disorder, and suicide attempts. The researchers examined associations as they applied to the sex of offspring, exposure to mental illness in only the mother, only the father, and in both parents.
The question was whether the risks of attempted suicide and violence in children relate to the full spectrum of their parents’ psychiatric disease.
The scientists used information approved by the Danish Data Protection Agency. In Denmark, all citizens since 1968 have been registered in the Danish Civil Registration System, which stores information like date of birth, identities of parents, and vital statistics that are being continuously updated.
The team included all people born to Danish-born parents in Denmark during 1967 through 1997 and who resided in the country on their 15th birthday. The cohort was made up of 44,472 subjects.
Dr. Webb and his colleagues found there were elevated risks for children to attempt suicide and violently offend when their parents suffered from any of the designated psychiatric diseases. The risks were even higher if the parental diagnosis was an antisocial personality disorder, cannabis misuse, or prior suicide attempt.
Risks were lowered if the parental psychiatric diagnosis was a mood disorder, particularly bipolar disorder. If there was a history of mental illnesses or suicide attempts in both mothers and fathers, risks seemed to be doubled compared to having diagnoses for only one parent.
Female offspring were more likely to offend violently due to parental psychiatric disease than were male offspring. But the sex-specific incidence rate ratios (IRRs) for suicide attempts in offspring were comparable.
Young people of parents who have a history of a psychiatric disease are at higher risk of being exposed to other adversities including maladaptive parenting practice, abuse, family violence, financial hardship, and neglect. Sadly, the harmful effects of these environmental practices on the risk of suicidal behavior or violence seems to be cumulative.
But even after adjusting for parental socioeconomic status, links between parental psychiatric illness and suicide attempts by offspring remained significantly high. Webb says that exposure to adversities during childhood and sensitive developmental periods may lead to a modification of gene expression, which in turn could result in altered neurobiological function such as stress-responsive systems, and the risk of adverse outcomes like suicidal and aggressive behaviors later in life.
The University of Manchester group concludes that professionals who treat adults with mental illnesses and suicidal behavior should consider evaluating the mental health of their children as well. Intervening to reduce the incidence and the effects of parental substance abuse is particularly necessary to possibly help lessen their children’s risks for suicide and violence.
The study, Parental Psychiatric Disease and Risks of Attempted Suicide and Violent Criminal Offending in Offspring, was published in the JAMA Psychiatry in August 2016.