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  • Writer's pictureGrey Chapin

Bereaved Siblings & Mental Health

May is Mental Health Month.

While preparing for a presentation in February, I found several statistics about siblings of the terminally ill and their mental health that further proves the need for sibling support programs. 5-8% of children in the U.S. have lost a sibling. Although each of these siblings goes through a unique set of challenges, one common factor is affected… their mental health. In the following blog, I put together statistics from different research studies in hopes of raising awareness for the challenges that siblings of the terminally ill face.

Location: Canada

Objective: to examine mental disorders and treatment use among bereaved siblings in the general population.

Generalized estimating equations were used to compare the two sibling groups in the two years before and after the index child’s death on physician‐diagnosed mental disorders and treatment utilization, with adjustment for confounding factors including pre‐existing mental illness. Analyses were stratified by age of the bereaved (<13 vs. 13+). Results revealed that, in the two years after the death of the child, bereaved siblings had significantly higher rates of mental disorders than control siblings, even after adjusting for pre‐existing mental illness.

Objective: to describe: (1) the prevalence of risky health-behaviors, psychological distress, and social support among bereaved siblings

Anxiety, depression, and illicit substance use increased during the year following their brother/sister’s death, but then returned to baseline. Siblings who reported dissatisfaction with communication, poor preparation for death, missed opportunities to say “goodbye,” and/or a perceived negative impact of the cancer experience on relationships tended to have higher distress and lower social support scores. Almost all siblings reported their loss still affected them.

Objective: to study the long- term impact on siblings’ development and mental wellbeing.

Adolescents confronted by the loss of a sibling often experience trauma associated with the loss or witnessing the decline of their sibling as well as a sense of disenfranchised grief, where the intensity of their grief may not be recognised by other people or may be seen as lesser than that of their parents.

Objective: examine how children’s cognitive and socioemotional skills and parental effort change around the time of the death of a child in the family.

Other relatives, such as surviving siblings, are also influenced by these deaths, both directly through the loss of a sibling and indirectly through parental bereavement. The uniqueness and longevity associated with sibling ties suggest that experiencing a sibling’s death could substantially disrupt the human capabilities of the surviving sibling. However, these experiences go largely unmeasured and are often not targets of interventions and resources, leading surviving siblings to be “forgotten grievers”. The scope of this omission is large, as US data suggest nearly 8% experience a sibling death before the age of 25 years.

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