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Original Investigation
May 2017

Association Between Spousal Suicide and Mental, Physical, and Social Health Outcomes: A Longitudinal and Nationwide Register-Based Study

Author Affiliations
  • 1Danish Research Institute for Suicide Prevention, Mental Health Centre, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • 2Department of Mental Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland
  • 3iPSYCH, Lundbeck Foundation Initiative for Integrative Psychiatric Research, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • 4Institute of Regional Health Research, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark
  • 5Centre for Psychiatry Research, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden
  • 6Department of Psychiatry, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
  • 7Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland
  • 8Section of Biostatistics, Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • 9Columbia School of Social Work, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, New York
  • 10Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide, Department of Psychiatry, and Office for Aging, University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, New York
JAMA Psychiatry. 2017;74(5):456-464. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.0226
Key Points

Question  Does the suicide of a spouse affect the health of the surviving partner?

Findings  In this nationwide register-based cohort study, an increased risk of mental and physical disorders, mortality, and adverse social events were noted among people bereaved by spousal suicide. Bereavement by suicide differed from bereavement by other manners of death.

Meaning  Surviving partners are affected on a broad range of mental, physical, and social health outcomes, suggesting a need for more proactive outreach.


Importance  Bereavement after spousal suicide has been linked to mental disorders; however, a comprehensive assessment of the effect of spousal suicide is needed.

Objective  To determine whether bereavement after spousal suicide was linked to an excessive risk of mental, physical, and social health outcomes when compared with the general population and spouses bereaved by other manners.

Design, Setting, and Participants  This nationwide, register-based cohort study conducted in Denmark of 6.7 million individuals aged 18 years and older from 1980 to 2014 covered more than 136 million person-years and compared people bereaved by spousal suicide with the general population and people bereaved by other manners of death. Incidence rate ratios were calculated using Poisson regressions while adjusting for sociodemographic characteristics and the presence of mental and physical disorders.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Mental disorders (any disorder, mood, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, alcohol use disorders, drug use disorders, and self-harm); physical disorders (cancers, diabetes, sleep disorder, cardiovascular diseases, chronic lower respiratory tract diseases, liver cirrhosis, and spinal disc herniation); causes of mortality (all-cause, natural, unintentional, suicide, and homicide); social health outcomes; and health care use.

Results  The total study population included 3 491 939 men, 4814 of whom were bereaved by spousal suicide, and 3 514 959 women, 10 793 of whom were bereaved by spousal suicide. Spouses bereaved by a partner’s suicide had higher risks of developing mental disorders within 5 years of the loss (men: incidence rate ratio, 1.8; 95% CI, 1.6-2.0; women: incidence rate ratio, 1.7; 95% CI, 1.6-1.8) than the general population. Elevated risks for developing physical disorders, such as cirrhosis and sleep disorders, were also noted as well as the use of more municipal support, sick leave benefits, and disability pension funds than the general population.Compared with spouses bereaved by other manners of death, those bereaved by suicide had higher risks for developing mental disorders (men: incidence rate ratio, 1.7; 95% CI, 1.5-1.9; women: incidence rate ratio, 2.0; 95% CI, 1.9-2.2), suicidal behaviors, mortality, and municipal support. Additionally, a higher level of mental health care use was noted.

Conclusions and Relevance  Exposure to suicide is stressful and affects the bereaved spouse on a broad range of outcomes. The excess risks of mental, physical, and social health outcomes highlight a need for more support directed toward spouses bereaved by suicide.