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September 17, 2001

Study Focuses on Effects of Communal Bereavement

How does stress resulting from disasters such as the recent tragic events in New York City and Washington affect health? Ralph Catalano, Professor of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley and Terry Hartig, docent at the Institute for Housing Research at Uppsala University in Sweden, conducted a study focusing on the effects of communal bereavement in Sweden. An article “Communal Bereavement and the Incidence of Very Low Birthweight in Sweden,” reporting study findings will be published in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, a journal of the American Sociological Association.

Prime minister Olof Palme's murder in 1986 and the sinking of the ferry Estonia in 1994 were stressful events for many Swedes, but did that stress affect health? Using an interrupted time-series design to measure the association between these events and the incidence of very low birthweight, the researchers examined effects of male unemployment, size of the birth cohort, and temperature in analysis of data for the period 1973-1995. The incidence of very low birthweight rose significantly in the months following the Palme murder and the Estonia catastrophe.

Events that trigger communal bereavement at the scale the authors study may seem rare but they do occur (e.g., destruction of the World Trade Center and attack on the Pentagon). Events with less visibility, moreover, may induce communal bereavement in smaller populations defined by geography or organizational participation.

Ralph Catalano is Professor of Public Health at University of California, Berkeley. He holds a Ph.D. from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. His work focuses on the health and behavioral effects of ambient stressors. Direct correspondence to Ralph Catalano, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720; electronic mail: He may be reached at (510) 658-4066.

Terry Hartig is a docent at the Institute for Housing Research at Uppsala University in Sweden. He holds a Ph.D. in Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine and was a postdoctoral scholar in social epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on the roles that natural and residential environments play in restorative processes.

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