Losing a Loved One Can Trigger Onset of Psychiatric Illness

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Losing a loved one is undoubtedly a traumatic experience. And evidence indicates that the loss can increase the risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, including anxiety, alcohol abuse and panic disorder.

Katherine M. Keyes, PhD, of the Department of Epidemiology at the School of Social Work, at Columbia University in New York, and colleagues examined the relationship between unexpected death of a loved one and the first onset of a lifetime disorder defined by DSM-IV. The relationship was estimated based on interviews conducted in more than 27,000 adults and the model controlled for prior psychiatric disorders or other traumatic experiences.

After an unexpected death, respondents had a higher incidence of major depressive episode, panic disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder, according to results published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. In addition, manic episodes, phobias, alcohol abuse, and generalized anxiety disorder was clustered in older adult age groups.

“The bereavement period is associated with elevated risk for the onset of multiple psychiatric disorders, consistently across the life course and coincident with the experience of the loved one’s death,” the researchers reported. “Novel associations between unexpected death and onset of several disorders, including mania, confirm multiple case reports and results of small studies and suggest an important emerging area for clinical research and practice.”

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Losing a Loved One Can Trigger Onset of Psychiatric Illness

Unexpected death of a loved one is common and associated with subsequent elevations in symptoms of multiple forms of psychopathology. Determining whether this experience predicts novel onset of psychiatric disorders and whether these associations vary across the life course has important clinical implications. 

The authors examined associations of a loved one's unexpected death with first onset of common anxiety, mood, and substance use disorders in a population-based sample.

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