Background: Adverse health and social outcomes are known to occur more frequently following parental death during childhood, but evidence is lacking for comparing long-term risks of internalised versus externalised harm.
Methods: This national register-based cohort study consisted of Danish persons born 1970-2000. The Civil Registration System and National Causes of Death Register were linked to ascertain parental deaths by cause before cohort members’ 15th birthdays. From age 15 years, hospital-treated self-harm episodes were ascertained through linkage to the National Patient Register and the Psychiatric Central Research Register, and violent crimes were identified via linkage to the National Crime Register. Hazard ratio and cumulative incidence values were estimated.
Results: Self-harm and violent criminality risks were elevated following parental death during childhood. Covariate adjustment for gender, birth year and first-degree relatives’ mental illnesses attenuated these associations, although significantly heightened risks persisted. The estimated hazard ratios did not differ greatly according to which parent died, but losing both parents conferred particularly large risk increases. Risks for both adverse outcomes were higher in relation to unnatural versus natural parental death; violent criminality risk was especially raised among individuals exposed to parental death by unnatural causes other than suicide. The association was strongest when pre-school age children experienced parental death.
Conclusions: Effective early intervention is needed to help youngsters who have experienced the death of one or both parents to develop immediate and sustained coping strategies. Enhanced cooperation between health and social services and criminal justice agencies may mitigate risks for these two destructive behaviours.