Can bereavement increase the risk of PTSD?

Exposure to at least one trauma is required for a diagnosis of PTSD. Both direct and indirect exposure to trauma can increase the risk of PTSD. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) determines direct traumas as threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence. Indirect traumas include witnessing the trauma, or learning that a relative or close friend was exposed to a trauma resulting in death. Differences in trauma characteristics, along with differences in personal characteristics, may affect the risk of developing PTSD.

What is the evidence for bereavement and risk of PTSD?

Moderate to low quality evidence found the prevalence of PTSD in mothers ranged from 23% to 49.1% within 3 months post-loss, from 0.6% to 37% between 3 months and 12 months post-loss, and from 3.3% to 15.2% by 18 years post-loss. In fathers, prevalence of PTSD ranged from 5% to 8.4% between 7 weeks and 18 years post-loss.

Moderate to high quality evidence found an increased risk of PTSD in bereaved people after exposure to any trauma compared to non-bereaved people after exposure to any trauma.

Moderate quality evidence finds the incidence of PTSD in bereaved individuals following earthquakes is around 39% compared to around 20% for individuals who are not bereaved following earthquakes. This represents a medium-sized effect of increased risk of PTSD in bereaved individuals. This was apparent in both adults and children.

Around 19% of people who were bereaved due to homicide of a loved one met criteria for lifetime PTSD. Around 5% met criteria for current PTSD. Homicidally bereaved people were more likely than non-homicidally bereaved people to report past-year PTSD symptoms. Twice as many parents whose children were murdered met PTSD criteria two years post-loss compared to parents who lost their child due to accident or suicide. There were no differences in rates of PTSD by five years. There were also no differences in PTSD symptoms between homicidally bereaved people and victims of physical or sexual assault.

August 2021

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Last updated at: 3:02 am, 8th October 2021
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