Wartime child evacuees’ poor mental health may be passed on

21 December 2017

Finnish child evacuees during the Second World War.

Mental health problems associated with childhood adversity persist across generations. This is shown by a new study of the offspring of Finnish children evacuated to Sweden during the Second World War. The study was conducted by researchers at Uppsala University, jointly with the National Institutes of Health (NIH, the US medical research agency) and the University of Helsinki.

The result applies to daughters whose Finnish parents were sent to Sweden as child evacuees during the Second World War. The study shows that these daughters have been at higher risk of suffering poor mental health as adults than their cousins ​​whose parents remained in Finland during the War. The gender differences are clear. For sons, no statistically significant relationship has been found. The daughters of female wartime child evacuees are the most vulnerable and it is they who differ most from their corresponding cousins.

“The purpose of the child transfers during the War was to protect the children from the circumstances created by the war between Finland and the Soviet Union. Our findings indicate remarkably far-reaching repercussions for mental health. This underlines the importance of carefully weighing up the pros and cons in designing measures in the context of complex emergencies that war and natural disasters, for example, often cause.” The speaker is Torsten Santavirta, Assistant Professor of Economics at Uppsala University’s Institute for Housing and Urban Research, one of the study’s authors.

In a previous study, the researchers interlinked data on the annual cohorts of Finnish wartime child evacuees born in 1933–1944 with the complete register of those who returned to their biological families after the War ended (49,000 children). Data matching of the registers with data on all hospital admissions in Finland due to mental health problems in the years 1971–2011 was carried out. The purpose was to study how the wartime childhood experience of evacuation had affected the individuals concerned during their adult lives. In this study, it was found that the female child evacuees ran an elevated risk of depression in adulthood compared with their sisters who were not sent away as girls, while no relationship was found for the men.

In their latest study, the researchers thus identified the children of the individuals in the previous study and collected data on their hospital admissions due to mental health problems in 1971–2012.

“The association between the mothers’ wartime stay in Sweden as child evacuees and their daughters’ poor mental health remains after we control for the  parents’ mental health problems. This indicates that it’s not the parents’ poor mental health as such that produces the association. However, the study doesn’t determine the mechanisms whereby the association between the wartime child evacuees’ perceived experiences and mental health problems in the next generation arises, and there are several conceivable explanations for that,” says Torsten Santavirta.

The study is published in the scientific journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Full article: Santavirta, T, Santavirta, N, Gilman, SE; Association of the World War II Finnish Evacuation of Children with Psychiatric Hospitalization in the Next Generation. JAMA Psychiatry. Doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.3511