The effects of peer support on post‐traumatic stress reactions in bereaved parents

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The death of a child is a traumatic event that affects the entire family 1 with widespread consequences for both the individual family members and the family as a whole. It has been linked to increased mortality 4, mental health problems 7, suicide attempts 8 and symptoms of post‐traumatic stress disorder 9 in parents. It has also been shown to have an adverse effect on the parents' relationship with each other, family functioning and the lives of other children in the family 10.
Coping with the death of a child is a dynamic and unique process encouraged by personal coping mechanisms that vary as time elapses from the death 14. Social support is a key factor contributing to the process and peer support, in particular, and has been recognised as beneficial 14. Peer support refers to the mutual exchange of information with people in similar circumstances or with similar experiences 15. It can occur either at the individual or group level and can be organised through a variety of organisations or the public healthcare system. Although research data on the efficacy of peer support remain limited 16, parents generally experience peer support as an important factor promoting their ability to cope with the death of a child 2. Peer support has, on the other hand, been found to have a positive impact on anxiety and post‐traumatic stress disorder symptoms in parents 1. A lack of social support has contrastively been found to increase the risk of developing chronic or pathological grief and post‐traumatic stress disorder 21.
The diagnostic criteria for post‐traumatic stress disorder include syndromes that develop within the first month after a traumatic event – intrusion, hyperarousal and avoidance 24 – which in the context of this study are measured with the Impact of Event Scale‐Revised (IES‐R) 25. Only few studies have been carried out on parental post‐traumatic stress disorder induced by the death of a child. It is recognised, however, that intrusion is a common symptom that can manifest itself as long as 5 years after the death of a child 22. The symptoms of post‐traumatic stress disorder are common among, for example, parents of children with cancer, the family members of children in urgent care 27 and parents of children with chronic illnesses, such as type 1 diabetes. Up to 70 per cent of such parents have reported notable symptoms of post‐traumatic stress disorder 30.
Only few studies have similarly been carried out on the impact of peer support interventions designed for parents who have experienced the death of a child. The impact of peer support interventions designed for entire families, in particular, has been subjected to hardly any scientific scrutiny 16. Nor are research data available on the association of background variables with stress reactions in parents after the death of a child. The variables that have, however, been associated with grief and its intensity include knowledge of the impending death, the age of parents and the cause of death 2.
The objective of this study is to describe the impact of peer support interventions on stress disorders in parents who have experienced the death of a child, the factors associated with the stress disorders and the parents' experiences of the support provided during the intervention. The peer support interventions discussed in the scope of this study refer to the support provided during a family weekend organised by KÄPY 34, a nongovernmental organisation providing peer support for bereaved families.
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