Experiences of Finnish war children reflect on the mental health of the following generation

The daughters of Finnish girls evacuated to Sweden during World War II are five times more likely to develop depression than their cousins whose mothers stayed home. A trauma experienced by the mother is a risk factor for depression. The risk was not similarly elevated for the boy children of the child evacuees.

A new study is the first to examine mental illnesses among the offspring of the people evacuated to Sweden from Finland as children by comparing them to their cousins whose parents were not evacuated.  The comparison focused on psychic disorders that required hospitalisation.

The study is a cooperation project of the University of Helsinki, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from the US and the University of Uppsala. It has been published in the internationally acclaimed psychiatry journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Transgenerational connection

The research group had previously studied the impact the experience of being evacuated had on the war children’s mental health as adults. Girls evacuated to Sweden were at a statistically higher risk of developing depression than their sisters who stayed at home.

This new study focused on the connection of the child evacuations to the mental illness of the following generation and the degree of transgenerational mental health impact of the evacuations and the resulting increased depression risk of the mother.

­ “In our study, we establish that the increased risk of depression for the mother is not the primary risk factor. When we control for the mother’s depression risk, the daughter’s risk of developing depression declines very little,” explains Nina Santavirta, University of Helsinki researcher.

The researchers were unable to pinpoint the exact mechanism which creates the transgenerational link between the evacuations and the mental health of the following generation.

 “One possible explanation is the impact that the experience of the evacuation had on the children’s ability to form intimate relationships, or how these experiences influenced the childrearing methods they would employ as parents,” says Santavirta.

 “We cannot rule out transgenerational epigenetic inheritance – the chemical changes that affect the way genes express without influencing the DNA itself.”

Excellent research setting

Comparing the child evacuees and their siblings who were not evacuated as well as their children generates a reliable research setting in which the transgenerational inheritance of depression can be examined while standardising several factors relating to family background.

The results are important for the nationally significant evaluation of the historical child evacuation project, and more broadly, for ongoing child evacuations.

The research combined information from several registers: a nationally representative 10% sample from the 1950 census (Statistics Finland) was combined with information on people born between 1933 and 1944 from the Child Evacuee Registry (National Archives of Finland) and the Care Register for Health Care (National Institute for Health and Welfare). The monitoring of the mental health of the children of child evacuees covered the years 1971–2012.

Information about the publication:

Docent Torsten Santavirta, Institute for Housing Research (IBF), Uppsala University; Docent Nina Santavirta, Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki; Sc.D. Stephen E. Gilman, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health (NIH): 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

Nina Santavirta in the University of Helsinki Tuhat database

Further information:
Researcher Nina Santavirta, phone +358 40 5552 431, nina.santavirta@helsinki.fi