A systematic review of controlled studies of suicidal and self-harming behaviours in adolescents following bereavement by suicide

del Carpio, Laura and Paul, Sally and Paterson, Abigail and Rasmussen, Susan (2021) A systematic review of controlled studies of suicidal and self-harming behaviours in adolescents following bereavement by suicide. PLOS One, 16 (7). e0254203. ISSN 1932-6203 (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0254203)

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Background Research suggests that being exposed to the suicide of others increases risk of subsequent suicidal or self-harming thoughts or behaviours. What is less clear is whether this applies to adolescents, and if the risk exceeds that following other causes of death, which has implications on suicide prevention approaches. This study aimed to systematically review the evidence on adolescent bereavement experiences by different causes to address this gap. Methods A comprehensive literature search using four databases (MEDLINE, PsycInfo, Web of Science, and Embase) identified 21 studies which measured suicidal or self-harm outcomes among bereaved adolescents aged between 12 to 18 years old. The literature was screened, data was extracted using pre-piloted forms, and risk of bias was assessed using versions of the Newcastle-Ottawa Scale; a proportion of papers were double extracted and assessed for bias. The review has been registered with PROSPERO (CRD42016051125). Results A narrative synthesis of the literature demonstrated divergent findings depending on the outcome being measured. Suicide bereavement appears to be strongly associated with suicide mortality among parentally bereaved youth, while self-harm or non-fatal suicide attempts (either presenting to hospital or self-reported) showed mixed evidence. Suicidal ideation was not uniquely associated with suicide bereavement. An exploration of circumstances surrounding the death, characteristics of the person who died, and characteristics of the young person across each outcome measure suggested that earlier experiences of loss, shorter timeframes following the death, and maternal death are associated with particularly elevated risk of suicidal outcomes. Conclusions Findings suggest that suicide loss is associated with subsequent suicide, and may be associated with non-fatal self-harm. A detailed account of the risk and protective factors surrounding suicide bereavement among young people is crucial to understand the pathways through which suicidal behaviours develop. Researchers, policy makers and practitioners with an interest in suicide prevention will benefit from clarity around the needs of young bereaved individuals.