Children of parents who commit suicide are more likely to commit suicide themselves


Suicide is rarely far from the headlines these days, but the last week has seen a number of high profile stories in the mainstream media. First there was the tragic death of the much loved footballer Gary Speed, which has been followed by a huge amount of press coverage.  Then on Saturday The Sun newspaper published an incredibly insensitive piece on suicide from Jeremy Clarkson.

In this context, it’s encouraging to see high quality research that investigates the reasons why people reach the point where they consider taking their own life. In my work scanning for articles to include in The Mental Elf, I see new systematic reviews and meta-analyses published every week on this topic, so it’s clearly a field where we are learning how to improve the situation year on year.

This new review was carried out by a team from Bristol University who were interested in finding out whether children of people who attempt or commit suicide are at greater risk of suicidal behaviours or affective disorders themselves.

The reviewers conducted a systematic and comprehensive search and found 28 studies, half of which they included in their meta-analysis. They calculated crude odds ratios and adjusted odds ratios (aOR) using fixed-effects models.

Here’s what they found:

  • Parental suicidal behaviour is associated with increased risk of offspring suicidal behaviour
    • Offspring whose parents died by suicide were more likely than offspring of two living parents to die by suicide (aOR 1.94, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.54-2.45)
    • Children whose parents attempted suicide were at increased risk of attempted suicide (aOR 1.95, 95% CI 1.48-2.57)
  • Findings suggest that maternal suicidal behaviour is a more potent risk factor than paternal
  • Children are more vulnerable than adolescents and adults
  • There is no evidence of a stronger association in either male or female offspring
  • Limited evidence indicated that exposure to parental death by suicide is associated with subsequent risk of affective disorders

Geulayov G, Gunnell D, Holmen TL, Metcalfe C. The association of parental fatal and non-fatal suicidal behaviour with offspring suicidal behaviour and depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychol Med. 2011 Dec 1:1-14. [Epub ahead of print] [PubMed abstract]

If you need help

If you need help and support now and you live in the UK or the Republic of Ireland, please call the Samaritans on 116 123.

If you live elsewhere, we recommend finding a local Crisis Centre on the IASP website.

We also highly recommend that you visit the Connecting with People: Staying Safe resource.

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Andre Tomlin

André Tomlin is an Information Scientist with 20 years experience working in evidence-based healthcare. He's worked in the NHS, for Oxford University and since 2002 as Managing Director of Minervation Ltd, a consultancy company who do clever digital stuff for charities, universities and the public sector. Most recently André has been the driving force behind the Mental Elf and the National Elf Service; an innovative digital platform that helps professionals keep up to date with simple, clear and engaging summaries of evidence-based research. André is a Trustee at the Centre for Mental Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London Division of Psychiatry. He lives in Bristol, surrounded by dogs, elflings and lots of woodland!

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