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May 30, 2014 12:00 PM EDT

Unexpected Death Of Loved One May Trigger Onset Of Psychiatric Disorders

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The sudden loss of a loved one may trigger an onset of psychiatric disorders, according to a recent study.

Researchers from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia's School of Social Work and Harvard Medical School found that the unexpected death of a loved one can lead to a variety of psychiatric disorders in people with no history of mental illness.

They found that in people aged 30 years or older, the unexpected death of a loved one roughly doubled the risk for new-onset mania after controlling for prior psychiatric diagnoses, other traumatic experiences, and certain demographic variables like sex, race, income, education, and marital status. For those younger than 50 years of age or older than 70 years, the risk increase was more than five-fold.

There was no significant effect in people younger than 30 years.

"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," Katherine Keyes, principal investigator and an assistant professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, said in a statement. "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."

For the study, Keyes and her colleagues analyzed data from more than 27,000 participants in the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Between about 20 and 30 percent of these participants identified the unexpected death of a loved one as the most traumatic event in their lives. This was still the case among those reporting 11 or more lifetime traumatic events, where losing a loved one unexpectedly was most traumatic for 22 percent.

Researchers also found that losing a loved one suddenly also raised the risk of major depression, excessive use of alcohol, and anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias. The largest risk increases were for post-traumatic stress disorder, which was seen across age groups with an increased risk as high as 30-fold. Most other disorders were concentrated in the older age groups.

"Clinically, our results highlight the importance of considering a possible role for loss of close personal relationships through death in assessment of psychiatric disorders," Dr. Keyes said. "When someone loses a close personal relationship, even late in life, there is a profound effect on sense of self and self-reflection. 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."

The findings were recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry

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