A new Danish study finds that the children of refugee parents diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are much more likely to have contact with the psychiatric system than the children of non-PTSD refugee parents.
PTSD is a delayed response to trauma and is often seen in refugees fleeing war and conflict. The condition can cause insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, and memory and concentration difficulties.
In the large study, researchers from the University of Copenhagen analyzed data from refugees who came to Denmark from January 1995 to December 2015 and had been granted a residence permit. In total, they analyzed data from 51,793 children of refugees and their contacts with the psychiatric system.
Contact with the psychiatric system means that the child had contact with the system at hospital level, either as an outpatient or inpatient.
The findings, published in the journal Lancet Public Health, show that children with one or two parents who suffer from PTSD have a significantly higher risk of psychiatric contact. The psychiatric disorders most commonly seen in children of parents with PTSD were behavioral and emotional disorders, nervous disorders and developmental disorders.
“The results of the study indicate that there is a group of children and adolescents who are at increased risk of morbidity,” said study co-author Maj Back Nielsen, M.P.H., from the Department of Public Health.
“You often focus on the traumatized parents, but it is also important to pay attention to the consequences which the parents’ trauma may have for the whole family so that you do not disregard a group of children and young people who also need help.”
“This does not just apply to children who have fled to Denmark and may themselves be traumatised by war. We also see an increased risk in children born in Denmark.”
In the study, the researchers show that if both parents had PTSD, their children were 75 per cent more likely to be in contact with the psychiatric system before they turned 18.
If only the mother had PTSD, the children had a 55 percent higher risk, and if only the father, a 49 percent higher risk — regardless of whether the children themselves had fled to Denmark or were born here.
“We know that PTSD has a big effect on the daily ability to function. And having a PTSD diagnosis affects the dynamics of the whole family,” said professor and co-author Dr. Marie Louise Nørredam from the Department of Public Health Sciences.
‘It is an already vulnerable group which may be further stressed by uncertainties about temporary residency and other socio-economic conditions, such as finances. We know from other research that social conditions are linked to diseases.”
The researchers did not have access to information from general practitioners and practicing psychiatric therapists. Consequently, the number of children in contact with the psychiatric system may be higher.
“If we want to ensure that these children have a proper future and opportunities in our community, we have to do something,” said Nørredam.
“Both the number of children and parents may be underestimated. Thus, there is a need for greater focus on the problem and on how we may take precautions and secure an earlier detection and develop early measures and treatment options for the children and their families.”
Source: University of Copenhagen