Study Finds Sudden Deaths of Beloved Friends and Family Members Can Trigger Onset of Psychiatric Disorders in Survivors

Researchers find the stresses and shocks during grieving over unexpected deaths can lead to the onset of a variety of psychiatric disorders for survivors

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At Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, researchers, along with colleagues from Columbia University’s School of Social Work and Harvard Medical School, have performed the first study that shows a direct link between acute bereavement and the new-onset of mania in a large population. While many studies have previously hinted that there is a link between bereavement and the onset of mental illnesses in people without any history, this study mainly focuses on its findings of what age groups are at risk for new-onset mania after the sudden death of beloved friends or family members.

teardrop of sadness


People at the highest risk for new-onset mania during times of grief and loss are those between 30 and 49 as well as those who are 70 or older with a fivefold increase in risk. Overall, the sudden death of beloved family members and friends doubled the risk of new-onset mania for people 30 and up. For those younger than 30, however, no significant findings occurred.

As Katherine Keyes, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, and principal investigator, says, “Our findings should alert clinicians to the possible onset of a wide range of psychiatric disorders, including disorders such as mania, after an unexpected death in otherwise healthy individuals. However, it is also notable that the majority of individuals in the present study did not develop mental health issues in the wake of an unexpected death of a loved one.”

In addition to mania, there are increasing risks for people grieving those they have lost in suffering from major depression, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol and coping with anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and different types of phobias. The risk of onset of post-traumatic stress disorder among those grieving increased as high as 30-fold across all age groups. The rest of the psychiatric disorders remained more isolated among those in older age groups.

Although it is rare for psychiatric disorders to appear for the very first time when someone reaches old age, the most common reason tends to be the sudden death of a beloved family member or friend. As Dr. Keyes stresses, “These data indicate that, 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.”

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