Discussing personal grief and bereavement with a doctor shortly after a close family member’s death can help lower the risk of suicide and psychiatric illness, according to a new Danish study published in the journal Clinical Epidemiology.
Losing a family member can be such a painful experience that the risk of committing suicide or developing a serious mental health condition increases for loved ones left behind. The findings suggest that talk therapy with a general practitioner early in the grieving process can lower this risk.
For the study, researchers from Aarhus University looked at health data of more than five million Danes who had been seeing a general practitioner between 1996-2013, with special focus on 207,000 people who had experienced a serious bereavement during that period, such as the loss of a parent, child, spouse or sibling.
“The study shows that patients whose general practitioners often use talk therapy have a lower risk of suicide and other psychological disorders than others,” said senior statistician and Ph.D. student Morten Fenger-Grøn from Aarhus University.
The study’s aim was to investigate the effects of early treatment with talk therapy or antidepressant medicine on grieving patients. The researchers looked at three specific consequences in connection with the grief resulting from the death of a close relative: suicide, self-harm and admission to a psychiatric hospital.
The researchers found that the grieving patients who were treated with talk therapy or antidepressant medication had an increased risk of developing psychological disorders or committing suicide.
“It was an expected finding which could in principle be due to the fact that the treatment is harmful, or the more desirable situation that the general practitioners are able to target the treatment towards the most seriously ill patients. The question was whether these patients would have had an even greater risk if they had not received treatment,” said Fenger-Grøn.
Specifically, in the period from six months to two years after the bereavement, 4,584 patients (2.2 percent) were affected by one of these events: suicide, self-harm and admission to a psychiatric ward, of which suicide was the rarest. Among patients who had received antidepressant treatment in the first six months, the figure was 9.1 percent, and among patients who received talk therapy, it was 3.2 percent.
To find out whether these patients would have been more ill without treatment, the team used a new analytical approach, where they utilized the fact that there are differences between general practitioners’ propensity to use different treatments.
“We’re talking about a so-called marginal patient, a patient that some doctors will choose to treat and others will not,” said Fenger-Grøn.
The findings showed that the risk of a serious psychiatric condition during the grief process would be 1.7 percent lower if the patient received talk therapy.
“It seems to document the importance of doctors having other means than scalpels and prescriptions. Our results suggest that early intervention in response to grieving patients can prevent serious psychiatric events,” he said.
Source: Aarhus University