The death of a parent is a devastating loss that can lead to intense feelings of grief. While some people will develop strong coping skills to help them manage the loss of a parent, others may struggle with prolonged or complicated grief. In some cases, losing a parent can lead to lasting damage to mental health, as well as serious consequences, such as substance misuse and increased risk of suicidal ideation.
Understanding Complicated Grief
Learning about the relationship between parental loss and negative outcomes like substance misuse and suicidal behavior requires an understanding of complicated grief. Everyone copes with grief differently, and some people are able to remain resilient, with little to no impact on psychological functioning.
On the other hand, some individuals may have a grief reaction lasting for a year or two, which can fall within the realm of what is considered normal. In severe cases, grief can become prolonged, debilitating, and even life-threatening. These severe cases of grief are referred to as complicated grief.
Complicated grief has been linked to physical and psychological health problems, and it may increase the risk of substance misuse. In fact, researchers have found a link between complicated grief and alcohol dependence. The loss of a parent can trigger a complicated grief reaction in which substance misuse becomes a source of coping with painful emotions.
Furthermore, research on individuals experiencing complicated grief symptoms has shown that around 30% of these individuals experience suicidal ideation. This suggests that thoughts of suicide are common among those experiencing prolonged grief symptoms.
The Link Between Parental Loss and Negative Coping Patterns
A brand new study published in a 2022 edition of The Lancet Public Health followed individuals aged 12 to 24 over the long term to assess the mental and behavioral health effects of losing a parent. Results showed an increased risk of substance misuse and suicidal ideation following parental death.
Below are some specific findings of the study:
- During the month a parent died, males were 89% more likely to experience a substance use disorder.
- Males were almost 4 times as likely to show suicidal behavior in the month a parent died.
- Females were almost 3 times as likely to demonstrate suicidal behavior during the month a parent died.
- Each year around the anniversary of losing their parent, female participants were at increased risk of a substance use disorder.
- Females were at a higher risk of suicidal behavior around the first and second anniversaries of losing their parents.
- Around the first anniversary of parental death, males were 164% more likely to experience a substance use disorder and over three times more likely to experience suicidal behavior.
What can be concluded from these findings is that young men and women are at increased risk of substance misuse and suicidal behavior, not only when a parent dies but also around the anniversary of a parent’s death. Death anniversaries can bring up unresolved grief, which may lead to negative coping patterns, such as substance misuse. Some people may be so distressed by reminders of losing a parent that they begin to think about suicide.
Other Mental Health Consequences of Parental Loss
The latest study on the impact of losing a parent adds to a growing body of research showing that the death of a parent has negative effects on mental and behavioral health. Other research has shown that teens who have experienced the death of a parent are at risk of withdrawing from school and showing little interest in college. Other outcomes of parental loss include lower academic achievement, increased risk of economic disadvantage, and a hesitancy to marry.
In general, teens who have lost a parent have difficulty adjusting psychologically and socially, but many of these difficulties decline as teens enter into young adulthood. Nonetheless, research also shows that those who lose a parent at a young age are more likely to need antidepressant medication, even when more than two years have passed since the loss. Some people may return to typical levels of functioning as time passes, but it is not unusual for people who have lost a parent to experience lasting mental health consequences.
Learning to Cope with Grief
If you’re having a difficult time coping with the loss of a parent, you are not alone. Everyone grieves differently, and for some, the grieving process can be long-lasting and lead to difficulty with functioning. The good news is that there is support available to help you adjust to the loss and develop healthy coping patterns.
You may benefit from attending a bereavement support group, where you can connect with others who are experiencing similar challenges and learn additional tools for coping. These groups provide a safe space for processing your emotions and developing social support. You could also benefit from working with a counselor or therapist to make sense of loss and develop strategies for overcoming grief.
Wherever you are on your grieving journey, there is support available if you’re finding that you’re having difficulty processing your emotions on your own. Sometimes people prefer to grieve on their own, but if feelings of grief are not improving or are interfering with daily functioning, it may be time to reach out for support. Seeking help can reduce your risk of developing negative coping patterns.
Even if you are grappling with substance misuse or thoughts of self-harm, you do not have to suffer alone, and there are treatment programs that can help you to rebuild your life. At Mission Harbor Behavioral Health, we provide outpatient services for both teens and adults. We offer various treatment tracks to meet a variety of needs, and we have offices in both Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Contact us today to learn more or to begin the admissions process.