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Psychiatric Disorders in Children and Parental History of Homelessness

A study from Denmark examines the relationship between psychiatric disorders in children and a history of homelessness in their parents.

Children and adolescents that come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds struggle with health problems compared to those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Social status and placement are suggested to have the largest effect on a child’s health and well-being and homelessness have been linked to severe health issues as well as excess mortality. The need to better understand this relationship led Denmark researchers to conduct a massive study of children and adolescents aged 0-16 years who had parents that had a history of homelessness.

This study ran from January 1, 1999, to December 31, 2015, and included 1,072,882 children in the population registry; 2% of them had one or two parents with a history of homelessness and these were the subjects in this study.

Researchers collected data using the Danish Civil Registration System and the Danish National Patient Register, which reflects any subject visitation to inpatients hospitals coupled with any resulting psychiatric diagnoses. They hypothesized that offspring of past paternal or maternal homelessness would experience higher levels of psychiatric illness. The results were recently published in the Lancet Public Health.

Children were at an Increased Risk

The results showed that overall, 5% of the initial 1,072,882 children were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. As suspected, the incidence of any psychiatric disorders in children with at least one parent with a history of homelessness was more than two times higher than the incidence of those without.

This translates to an increased risk associated with cases of parental homelessness affecting the next generation’s mental health. The risk was elevated when considering if either parent had a psychiatric disorder as well. In fact, 36% of adolescents whose mothers had experienced both homelessness and a psychiatric illness were diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses themselves by the age of 15 years. It is important to note that the study indicated that any point of homelessness, even before pregnancy, can lead to later instability of a home environment.

A strength of this study lies in the accuracy and completeness with which the cohort study data was collected as well as the specific psychiatric diagnoses outcomes of the offspring. However, the study was limited by the lack of information about those outside homeless shelter contact or those who were currently homeless but weren’t utilizing public shelters.

This study is the first of its kind to investigate the relationship between a history of homelessness in both mothers and fathers and later psychiatric disorders, including substance abuse disorders in their children, on such a large scale. Overall, the increased risk of psychiatric disorders in children of parents who had ever experienced homelessness has important implications for public health policy. This focus on the low-income or socially marginalized families must be improved to foster a better future for mental health in the coming generations.

Written by Cooper Powers, BSc

Reference:  Nilsson, S.F., Laursen, T.M., Hjorthøj, C., Thorup, A., Nordentoft, M. Risk of psychiatric disorders in offspring of parents with a history of homelessness during childhood and adolescence in Denmark: a nationwide, register-based, cohort study. Lancet Public Health. 2017 2; 541-550.



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