Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care


Drug misuse and suicidal behaviour more common on the anniversary of a parent’s death

2 August 2022

Young people who lost a parent were more likely to be admitted to hospital for treatment for substance misuse use problems or suicidal behaviour around the anniversary of their parents’ death according to research from ICLS' Professor Scott Montgomery and colleagues.

Rose on headstone

The research published in The Lancet Public Health journal involved a large study of nearly 2 million people using population data collected in Sweden between 2001 and 2014.

To understand whether there was a greater risk of substance misuse or suicidal behaviour around the anniversaries of a parent’s death, the researchers connected the dates of parental deaths with the dates that participants were admitted to hospital for drug misuse, self-harm or attempted suicide. They tracked participants for a period of four anniversaries.

Almost 3% of the study population experienced the death of a parent between ages 12 and 24. To make certain that any raised risk was specific to the anniversary of a parent’s death, the researchers compared hospital admissions for drug use or suicidal behaviour around anniversaries with those that happened on different dates in the same year among those who had lost a parent.

Young people who had lost a parent were more likely to suffer substance use disorder or suicidal behaviour in the same month that their parent died, as well as during the following two months. This raised risk was seen again around the same dates during the following year.

One year after losing a parent, there was a 121% increased risk of hospital treatment for substance misuse in the two months following the anniversary among men, and a 91% increase among women compared with people who had not lost a parent. The increased risk for suicidal behaviour during the same period was 218% for males, but there was no notable increase among females. This pattern continued among those who had lost a parent for the next three years – though they became less common over time. Fortunately, fatal events were extremely rare.

Professor Montgomery stressed it was important to note that substance misuse or instances of suicidal behaviour were not common in people who had lost a parent. Only around 2% of those who were bereaved were admitted to hospital during the study period for substance use disorder. Only around 1% were identified as exhibiting suicidal behaviour. But this behaviour did occur more frequently in people who had lost a parent at a relatively young age compared to those who did not.

He said: "The loss of a parent at a relatively young age will clearly be a source of intense grief for most people. But our study shows that, while it is uncommon, for some this anniversary may lead to harmful behaviour. But our study has also shown that grief-related distress diminishes over time – and so does the risk for substance misuse and suicidal behaviour.

"Our research shows that there’s a clear need to support people who have lost parents around the time of loss – and that this support should also be given around the anniversary they lost a parent, possibly for many years. It’s also important to recognise that mental health risks may differ between men and women. Providing the right kind of support – including grief counselling, help with alcohol and other drug-related problems and mental health help – will be essential for reducing harm among people who have lost a parent."