Childhood Stress – The Silent Monster

The article, “Acute Stress in Childhood Increases Serious Mental Illness Risk” published on the News Medical website explains the relationship between acute stress in childhood, such as sudden death of a father or sibling, and the risk of developing a mental illness in later life.

Preschool children experiencing the sudden death of their father or sibling, were significantly more likely to develop schizophrenia or bipolar disorder than those suffering the death of a parent due to natural causes, according to a research study conduced by the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland.

The Study

The researchers reviewed Finnish government records on 11,855 people, born between 1960 and 1990, who experienced their father or sibling’s death prior to age five. They separated the data into two groups: 6,136 preschoolers who experienced a non-illness related death of a father or sibling versus 5,719 preschoolers whose father or sibling died from an illness. By studying hospital records, the researchers documented 165 cases where these preschoolers were later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and 129 cases of adult schizophrenia.


The sudden death group developed bipolar disorder 1.6 times more frequently than the illness-related death group and were 1.3 times more likely to evidence schizophrenia in adulthood. The data appear fairly robust as factors such as gender, age at death, follow-up age, and parental psychiatric history were balanced between the two groups. The effect continued to be robust even after cases of paternal suicide were excluded.

Corroborative Findings

The findings are explained by researchers at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, who confirm that children who are neglected or sexually, physically or emotionally abused are significantly more likely to develop mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse later as adults. Dr. Anda, Ph.D., terms these experiences Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE, and indicates that childhood traumas, such as having a battered mother or father in prison, or being the victim of abuse or neglect, might damage a child psychologically for life.

Dr. Anda found that these childhood traumas are, unfortunately, all too common with about two-thirds of the population having at least one ACE experience. The more ACE experiences a child has, the more likely he is to develop psychiatric problems later in life.

Pediatrician Andrew Garner, M.D., attributes both genes and environment as factors predisposing preschoolers to later psychiatric health problems. “Genes load the gun, and environment pulls the trigger,” he explains, indicating that each ACE experience breaks down a child’s genetic resilience to developing a mental illness. A genetically fragile child in a wonderful, nurturing environment may never develop a psychiatric problem whereas a comparatively genetically strong child bombarded by ACE experiences in preschool might later become mentally ill.

Hope Exists

Although these findings are grim, the good news, according to all the researchers, is that most of these tragedies are preventable. As explained by Picower Director Matt Wilson, Ph.D., “We also see the impact of early intervention and how this can translate into lifelong benefits and changes not just to individuals but to society.”