By Raj Persaud and Professor Adrian Furnham
Prince Harry has spoken openly and movingly for the first time about how he coped with the death of his mother, Princess Diana.
In the United States, at any given time, 3.5% of the population, or roughly 2.2 million people, have endured the death of one or both of their parents prior to reaching the age of 18, while in the UK 4–5% of all children experience the death of a parent before their 18th birthday. Childhood parental death is regarded by psychologists as one of the most severely stressful life events that a child can experience.
But now the latest psychological research suggests that Prince Harry may have been luckier than even he may realise in achieving such resilience, compared with many who experienced parental death during childhood, and who go on to suffer a variety of problems including hospital admission for depression.
The coping mechanism which has been found to be one of the most powerful in promoting resilience in childhood survivors of parental death, was also recently uncovered in survivors of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the USA.
In Sweden the figures for how many children will lose a parent are very similar to the UK and Lisa Berg, from the Centre for Health Equity Studies, Stockholm University, leads a team which has just published a study following up 862,554 Swedes, which has uncovered that the particular circumstances surrounding Princess Diana’s death may be associated with greater trauma for someone like Prince Harry.
The study, entitled, ‘Parental death during childhood and depression in young adults – a national cohort study’, found that parental death from causes such as suicide, accident and homicide are associated with two to three times increased risk of hospital admissions for psychiatric problems such as depression, in children who experienced parental death, compared with a parent dying from natural causes.
The study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry also found that the risk of hospital admissions for depression were almost twice for men, compared with women after a loss of a mother from causes such as suicide, accident or homicide, as opposed to natural causes.
Maybe the vulnerability of men has something to do with the tendency for men to not talk about their problems compared with women, for example the latest statistics available suggest that of all the people referred for counselling in the UK National Health Service, around two thirds are women.
Prince Harry has served in the armed forces, and was educated at Eton, perhaps the most famous private boarding school in the UK, so he seems to hail from an aristocratic and macho world where sharing emotions may be looked down on as too feminine and signalling weakness. His speaking out about seeking professional help may be particularly powerful in breaking down the stigma surrounding trauma and mental health amongst men.
Nathan Greene and Katie McGovern, from The Wright Institute, a Californian Clinical Psychology Graduate School, have just published a study of 350 adults who experienced early parental death in order to investigate what are the best coping skills that best assist psychological survival.
The key factor that might also explain the secret to Prince Harry’s success is referred to in the research, published in the journal Death Studies, as ‘dispositional gratitude’. This is strongly associated with psychological well-being and posttraumatic growth, even if you lost a parent through death during a child. This tendency to feel grateful for life has to offer, despite the bad hand of cards you seemed to have dealt, also protected against developing depression.
Psychologists had already found from their surveys that grateful people tend to be happier, but is this an attitude to life that can be learned, practiced, and cultivated? Or are you just born that way? Gratitude and well-being do increase following techniques such as maintaining a gratitude journal or actively counting one’s blessings.
This new study entitled, ‘Gratitude, psychological well-being, and perceptions of posttraumatic growth in adults who lost a parent in childhood’, points out that following the 9/11 terrorist attacks psychological research into those who appeared more psychologically resilient suggested they might have been deploying the coping skill of gratitude.
Gratitude was one of the three most reported positive emotions from those traumatized by the attacks and these people may have felt grateful to be alive or to know that their loved ones were safe.
In Nathan Greene and Katie McGovern’s study, the counterintuitive finding is that such a profoundly negative experience as losing a parent during childhood, can lead you to feel more gratitude or appreciation for life because of a newfound belief that life is precious, with greater appreciation for loved ones.
But not everyone comes out of these traumas as resilient as Prince Harry. The most common reason given in Nathan Greene and Katie McGovern’s study for experiencing no change or a decrease in gratitude, was that the emotional pain related to the loss was too great to allow for thankfulness. Many reported that difficulty trusting others, resentment, and family conflict inhibited gratitude formation.
Witnessing first-hand the death of a parent at a young age could lead one to view life as a finite commodity, and in turn value one’s own life more as well as the lives of loved ones.
As one participant in this research reported:
I know and understand very much how short life can be and how the important people in our lives might only be here for a short amount of time. I take each day as an opportunity to do things that are meaningful to me and try to find ways to connect with the people I care about.
Parental death during childhood and depression in young adults - a national cohort study. Berg L, Rostila M, Hjern A. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2016 Sep;57(9):1092-8.
Gratitude, psychological well-being, and perceptions of posttraumatic growth in adults who lost a parent in childhood. Greene N, McGovern K. Death Studies. 2017 Feb 17:1-11.