The mental health consequences of COVID-19 deaths are likely to overwhelm an already tattered U.S. mental health system, leading to a lack of access, particularly for the most vulnerable, experts warn.
“A second wave of devastation is imminent, attributable to mental health consequences of COVID-19,” write Naomi Simon, MD, and coauthors with the department of psychiatry, New York University.
In a Viewpoint article published in JAMA on Oct. 12, physicians offer some sobering statistics.
Since February 2020, COVID-19 has taken the lives of more than 214,000 Americans. The number of deaths currently attributed to the virus is nearly four times the number of Americans killed during the Vietnam War. The magnitude of death over a short period is a tragedy on a “historic scale,” wrote Dr. Simon and colleagues.
The surge in mental health problems related to COVID-19 deaths will bring further challenges to individuals, families, and communities, including a spike in deaths from suicide and drug overdoses, they warned.
It’s important to consider, they noted, that each COVID-19 death leaves an estimated nine family members bereaved, which is projected to lead to an estimated 2 million bereaved individuals in the United States.
The necessary social distancing and quarantine measures implemented to fight the virus have amplified emotional turmoil and have disrupted the ability of personal support networks and communities to come together and grieve.
“Of central concern is the transformation of normal grief and distress into prolonged grief and major depressive disorder and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder,” Simon and colleagues said.
“Once established, these conditions can become chronic with additional comorbidities such as substance use disorders. Prolonged grief affects approximately 10% of bereaved individuals, but this is likely an underestimate for grief related to deaths from COVID-19,” they wrote.
As with the first COVID-19 wave, the mental health wave will disproportionately affect Black persons, Hispanic persons, older adults, persons in lower socioeconomic groups of all races and ethnicities, and healthcare workers, they note.
The psychological risks for health care and other essential workers are of particular concern, they say. “Supporting the mental health of these and other essential workforce is critical to readiness for managing recurrent waves of the pandemic,” they stated.
How will the United States manage this impending wave of mental health problems?
“The solution will require increased funding for mental health; widespread screening to identify individuals at highest risk including suicide risk; availability of primary care clinicians and mental health professionals trained to treat those with prolonged grief, depression, traumatic stress, and substance abuse; and a diligent focus on families and communities to creatively restore the approaches by which they have managed tragedy and loss over generations,” the authors wrote.
“History has shown that societies recover from such devastation when leaders and members are joined by a shared purpose, acting in a unified way to facilitate recovery. In such societies, there is a shared understanding that its members must care for one another because the loss of one is a loss for all. Above all, this shared understanding must be restored,” they concluded.
Dr. Simon has received personal fees from Vanda Pharmaceuticals Inc, MGH Psychiatry Academy, Axovant Sciences, Springworks, Praxis Therapeutics, Aptinyx, Genomind, and Wiley (deputy editor, Depression and Anxiety). Saxe has received royalties from Guilford Press for the book Trauma Systems Therapy for Children and Teens (2016). Marmar serves on the scientific advisory board and owns equity in Receptor Life Sciences and serves on the PTSD advisory board for Otsuka Pharmaceutical.
A version of this article originally appeared on Medscape.com.