When a Parent Commits Suicide, What Happens to the Children Left Behind?
Dec 31, 2003
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has awarded a two-year grant to Weill Cornell Medical College psychiatrist and noted childhood bereavement expert Dr. Cynthia Pfeffer. The grant will fund a new study in a field that is largely unexplored: how the suicide of a parent (or a sibling) affects the children who are left behind.
How children are affected by the death of a loved one has been an area of particular interest to Dr. Pfeffer, a Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and an Attending Psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Her treatment and study of children who lost a parent to the events of 9/11 is bringing significant insight to the area of childhood bereavement. "This new study," says Dr. Pfeffer, "will allow us to better understand the process of grieving in children. It will help us begin to make sense of a traumatic event such as suicide."
The study—like her work with 9/11 victims—will monitor the psychological, physiological, and physical growth of children. Each child's height and weight will be recorded at regular intervals, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol will be measured in both children and parents.
The rate at which a child grows is considered a measure of health, and while tracking it might chart the impact of stress, measuring the levels of specific hormones, such as cortisol, tells researchers how stress is chemically affecting the body. Cortisol levels of children and parents will be measured by saliva samples. To enable the assessment of developmental variations among the bereaved children, the study will also test and monitor a comparison group of children who were not exposed to suicide.
In addition to these aspects, the researchers meet with families at six month intervals, assessing the child's condition and also giving attention to the state of the other family members. How a parent grieves is seen to affect a child's bereavement process, and, perhaps, the opposite could be said as well. At the conclusion of each series of meetings, feedback is provided to the families, with problem cases being guided toward additional assessment or intervention. In the 9/11 study, most families valued the feedback they received.
Exactly why people commit suicide is not known. Issues such as anxiety, depression, alcoholism and/or drug addiction, and financial instability are all considered to be risk factors. These issues tend to run in families and make Dr. Pfeffer's study of particular importance. "These children are at a higher risk of committing suicide themselves," notes Dr. Pfeffer. "By intervening, we have the potential to prevent this."
Families involved in the study have been referred by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or people in their community. Some families affected by suicide learn of the study on their own and choose to become involved. Eventually, Dr. Pfeffer's study will accommodate about 50 families.