MENTAL HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF PARENTAL DEATH: Evidence from Finland

13 Apr 2021

New research examines the impact of losing a parent when someone is aged between 10 and 20 on the likelihood of hospitalisation for mental health reasons. While the study by Petri Böckerman, Mika Haapanen and Christopher Jepsen finds no clear evidence of increased hospitalisation following the death of a parent of a different gender, there are significant effects for boys losing their fathers and girls losing their mothers.

The researchers show that young men have higher hospitalisation for mental health reasons for several years following the death of their father. Depression is the most common cause of hospitalisation in the first three years after paternal death, whereas anxiety and, to a lesser extent, self-harm are the most common causes five to ten years after the paternal death.

Similarly, young women have a large increase in hospitalisation when their mother dies. This increase is similar in magnitude to the effect for men when their father dies. But for women, the duration of the effect is much shorter.

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Children face many challenges on their path to adulthood. Probably the most difficult situation a child can face is the death of a parent. Children in these circumstances are forced to overcome a likely reduction in family income, a loss of parental guidance and social support, and many other shortfalls that other children do not have to face. Parental death has consequences on children across a host of outcomes such as future educational opportunities, labour market outcomes, family formation and health.

Using nationwide data, this study looks at the relationship between parental death and children’s mental health outcomes. Specifically, it uses detailed administrative data for Finnish citizens born between 1971 and 1986 to estimate the relationship between a parental death between ages 10 and 20 and the likelihood of hospitalisation for mental health reasons.

The preferred analysis technique is called an event study, which focuses on the change in hospitalisation in the years immediately surrounding the parental death. The authors look separately at paternal and maternal death, and they also look separately at outcomes for male and female children.

They find three key results.

First, males have a large jump in the likelihood of hospitalisation in the year of the death of their father. The effect is nearly equal to the average hospitalisation rate for boys in the time periods before their father died. By three years after the death, the increase in hospitalisation has declined by one-fourth compared with the increase in the year of the death, but this increase is still meaningful in both an economic and a statistical sense.

Males have higher hospitalisation for mental health reasons for several years following the death of their father. For males, depression is the most common cause of hospitalisation in the first three years after paternal death, whereas anxiety and, to a lesser extent, self-harm are the most common causes five to ten years after the paternal death.

The second notable finding is that females have a large increase in hospitalisation when their mother dies. This increase is similar in magnitude to the effect for males when their father dies. But for females, the duration of the effect is much shorter. For three years after the mother’s death, and each subsequent year through the end of the analysis period of 10 years, there is no discernible increase in hospitalisation.

Third, there is no clear evidence for increased hospitalisation following the death of a parent of a different gender. In nearly all time periods, there is no change in hospitalisation rates for males following the death of their mother or for females following the death of their father.

Finally, the authors provide a more descriptive, less in-depth analysis on additional mental health outcomes, where we have less comprehensive data. They find further evidence of an increase in the use of mental health-related medications and sickness absence as well as substantial reductions in years of schooling, employment, and earnings for children following the death of a parent.

Mike Haapanen

University of Jyväskylä | mika.p.haapanen@jyu.fi

Petri Böckerman

Labour Institute for Economic Research | petri.bockerman@labour.fi

Christopher Jepsen

University College Dublin | christopher.jepsen@ucd.ie