Unexpected Death of a Loved One Linked to Onset of Psychiatric Disorders

The unexpected death of a loved one can trigger psychiatric disorders in people with no history of mental illness. Though previous studies have suggested a link between sudden bereavement and the onset of common psychiatric disorders, this is the first to show the link between sudden bereavement and common anxiety, mood, and substance disorders by studying a large national population sample. The study, by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia’s School of Social Work, and Harvard Medical School, was published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Analyzing data from structured interviews with 27,534 adults, principal investigator Katherine Keyes, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of epidemiology at Mailman, and coauthors found that the unexpected death of a loved one was the most common traumatic experience; it was also the most likely to be regarded as the person’s worst experience, regardless of other traumatic experiences. Although the majority of individuals in the study did not experience the onset of any psychiatric disorder, researchers found that the unexpected death of a loved one raised the risk of various psychiatric disorders across age groups. Most disorders other than PTSD were concentrated in older age groups.

Read the Mailman School’s news release on the study.