Sudden death of a loved one is one of the common causes of reduced academic performance among youth

Adolescence is a period in a person’s life characterized by significant biological, psychological and social changes. A recent study from Texas Children’s Hospital/Baylor College of Medicine finds sudden death of a loved one (e.g. parents, grandparents, close friend or relatives) is a common traumatic event experienced by teenagers and can have a profound negative impact on their academic performance and functioning.

Dr. Julie Kaplow, director of the Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital was one of the lead co-authors of this study, which was published in the journal, "School Psychology Quarterly".

Interestingly, the authors found that while academic functioning of bereaved youth was diminished, they did not place a lower value on the benefit of education per se, nor did they have a reduced motivation to try harder. However, these students had diminished capacity to focus and learn and had lower positive feelings associated with school.

These results highlight the unmet need for identifying students who have experienced the sudden loss of a loved one during middle and high school years. Moreover, based on this study, it is clear schools may be ideally suited to help bereaved youth by providing school-based mental health resources and bereavement-informed, group-based interventions.

The authors used the National Comorbidity Survey-Adolescent Supplement, a nationally representative epidemiological survey that was conducted in the United States between 2001 and 2004, to analyze responses from over 10,000 youth. The data was analyzed to find whether those surveyed had experienced sudden loss (along with 17 other traumatic events), the age at which they had first experienced sudden loss, and how sudden loss (and other traumatic events) impacted many indicators of academic functioning.

Sudden loss of a loved one was the most frequently occurring traumatic event among youth; approximately 30 percent of adolescents reported at least one sudden loss in their lifetime, and youth were most likely to have first experienced sudden loss during middle adolescence (15 to 16 years of age).

Youth are at a higher risk of experiencing sudden loss due to several changes in their lifestyle, most important of which are the reduced desire for parental supervision, increased independence (e.g. ability to drive) and expansion of their social network. The authors think these changes, combined with the fact that adolescents often display difficulties with impulse control and avoidance of risky behaviors, places them at an increased risk for experiencing traumatic events such as accidents and fatal injuries of their close friends. Moreover, they could experience sudden loss of aging relatives they are close to (e.g. grandparents) or parents to heart attack or stroke.

The authors found that in bereaved youth, sudden loss of a loved one was associated with lower academic achievement and was accompanied by a lower ability to concentrate and learn. Moreover, these youth also reported less enjoyment at school, lower sense of belonging in school, and lower beliefs that teachers treat youth fairly. Although the data set did not contain information regarding youths’ grief reactions, it is likely that these school-related behaviors may be associated with existential or identity distress, or feeling like nothing matters – common grief reactions among adolescents. Alternatively, given the sudden nature of the deaths, the inability to concentrate and learn may be associated with posttraumatic stress, which can often resemble “ADHD-like” behaviors. Unfortunately, many bereaved youth may be overlooked given that grief reactions are often mistaken for “typical adolescent behaviors”.

“Bereavement in general, or the sudden death of a loved one, is often left unaddressed in school settings, but this is precisely where youth may be grappling with their distress the most. They may be triggered by loss reminders in the classroom or may receive messages from peers or school personnel that they should just get over it. Given the significant impact that sudden loss has on school performance and behavior, we have a unique opportunity to intervene in the most direct and effective way possible. This includes screening students for exposure to sudden loss and providing necessary bereavement-informed, school-based interventions, particularly in underserved communities where sudden death tends to be the most rampant. In fact, my team and I have been training school-based clinicians to implement these types of interventions, and the results have been very successful, particularly with regard to enhancing academic success and engagement," said Kaplow.