Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Maternal death and the onward psychosocial circumstances of Australian Aboriginal children and young people

S. R. Zubricka1a2 c1, F. Mitroua1, D. Lawrencea1a2 and S. R. Silburna1a2

a1 Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Centre for Child Health Research, University of Western Australia

a2 Centre for Developmental Health, Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute, Perth, Australia


Background This study sought to determine the social and emotional impact of maternal loss on Aboriginal children and young people using data from the Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey (WAACHS).

Method Data were from a population-based random sample of 5289 Aboriginal children aged under 18 years. Interview data about the children were gathered from primary carers and from their school teachers. Probabilistic record linkage to death registrations was used to ascertain deaths. Association between maternal death and subsequent psychosocial outcomes was assessed using univariate analyses and logistic regression.

Results Of the 5289 Aboriginal children, 57 had experienced the death of their birth mother prior to the survey. Multi-variable adjustment accounting for age and gender found that, relative to children who were living with their birth mother, children whose birth mother had died were at higher risk for sniffing glue or other substances [odds ratio (OR) 3.4, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.3–8.7], using other drugs (OR 2.8, 95% CI 1.2–6.8), talking about suicide (OR 2.6, 95% CI 1.2–5.7) and attempting suicide (OR 7.0, 95% CI 1.6–31.1).

Conclusions Although the death of a birth mother is relatively rare and the vast majority of Aboriginal children with adverse developmental outcomes live in families and are cared for by their birth mother, the findings here suggest that the loss of a birth mother and the circumstances arising from this impart a level of onward developmental risk for mental health morbidity in Australian Aboriginal children.

(Received May 31 2010)

(Revised October 04 2010)

(Accepted November 20 2010)

(Online publication January 05 2011)


c1 Address for correspondence: Professor S. R. Zubrick, Centre for Child Health Research, University of Western Australia, PO Box 855, West Perth, 6872, Australia. (Email: