When one member of a household has an untreated mental health or substance use disorder, it will affect the entire family. It’s why family therapy is a beneficial part of many recovery programs.
But now there is scientific evidence showing that when a parent has a mental illness or substance abuse problem, their children are sadly at greater risk for attempting suicide and becoming violent offenders. When both parents struggle with mental illness or substance abuse, the risk is doubled.
It comes down to more than just genetics, although studies have already shown that genetics do play a role in mental illness1 and substance abuse.2
In this first-of-its-kind study published August 31, 2016, in JAMA Psychiatry, Danish researchers followed 1.7 million of that country’s residents born between 1967 and 1997. They specifically noted whether children born to parents with one or more disorders went on to attempt suicide or commit serious crimes later in life. They followed them beginning with their 15th birthday (when children can be tried as adults in Denmark) until the first suicide attempt, violent crime or December 2012, whichever came first.
The study even looked at how different psychiatric diagnoses among parents affected children differently. The diagnoses included any substance use disorders, alcohol abuse, cannabis abuse, various forms of schizophrenia, mood disorders such as bipolar and depression, anxiety, and specific personality disorders, including antisocial personality disorder. Definitions for the disorders came from the International Code of Diseases, 10th edition (ICD-10).
Daughters More Likely to Attempt Suicide, Sons at Risk to Become Violent Offenders
More than 44,000 people in the study born to parents with a psychiatric diagnosis (2.6 percent) attempted suicide at least once and more than 55,000 were convicted of a violent offense during the study period. The median age for a first suicide attempt was 21.6 and the median age for a first violent crime 20.6.
Female children were slightly more likely to attempt suicide than males. Males were far more likely to commit violent crimes (90 percent vs. 10 percent of women). The authors reported that of the nearly 92,000 people who had at least one adverse outcome during follow-up, 40 percent attempted suicide, 52 percent were convicted of at least one violent crime and 9 percent experienced both.
“Offspring of parents with cannabis misuse or antisocial personality disorder in addition to other disorders, or those with a parental history of both mental illness and suicide attempt, were at particularly high risks for both adverse outcomes,” the authors reported.3 “Exposure to parental cannabis misuse only was also strongly linked with elevated risk for offspring violent offending. However, no significant associations between parental cannabis misuse and offspring suicide attempt were found after exposure to multiple disorders was accounted for.” “Offspring of parents with cannabis misuse or antisocial personality disorder in addition to other disorders, or those with a parental history of both mental illness and suicide attempt, were at particularly high risks for both adverse outcomes,” the authors reported.
In other words, the impact of a parent’s cannabis use on their children was minimal when accounting for the impact of other problems caused by an additional psychiatric disorder. Yet even when those were accounted for, the risk that child would become a violent offender still was “particularly elevated among those with a personal history of suicide attempt, or with a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder or cannabis misuse, while attempted suicide risk remained elevated particularly for those exposed to parental suicide attempt or antisocial personality disorder,” the authors explained.
The paper bolsters previous studies that came to similar conclusions, the authors reported. “Our findings for suicide attempt align with those from a Swedish national registry study, which found that risks were particularly elevated for offspring exposed to parental personality disorders, suicide attempt and substance misuse. Similarly, the World Mental Health surveys revealed that elevated risk of offspring suicide attempt was linked with parental depression, panic or generalized anxiety disorder, substance misuse, and suicidal behavior.”
Treatment with a Family-Centered Approach Reduces Cumulative Effects of Trauma
The results of the study may not be surprising to people living with loved ones who have a substance use or mental health disorder. Still, it’s important to remember that comprehensive treatment for substance use disorders and mental illness within a family leads to more functional, more peaceful lives for everyone involved. “Children of parents with a history of psychiatric disease are at increased risk of being additionally exposed to other adversities, such as maladaptive parenting practice, family violence, abuse, neglect, and financial hardship, and the impact of these harmful environmental factors on offspring risks of suicidal behavior and violence perpetration is thought to be cumulative,” the authors wrote.
With integrated treatment of mental illness and substance abuse, the above-mentioned cumulative risk factors can be diminished or eliminated, easing the long-term pain for families and leading to healthier outcomes.
Life in the modern family can be stressful enough as it is. Taking unprescribed medications or drinking heavily may not seem like a big deal until family feuds begin erupting at the dinner table for no explained reason. Children look to their parents to calm such storms, not create them.
“Psychiatrists and other professionals treating adults with mental disorders and suicidal behavior should consider evaluating the mental health and psychosocial needs of their patients’ children,” the study concludes. “Early interventions could benefit not only the parents but also their offspring.”