COVID-19: A Second Wave of Mental Illness 'Imminent'

Megan Brooks

October 13, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The mental health consequences of COVID-19 deaths are likely to overwhelm an already tattered US 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, NYU Grossman School of Medicine, New York City.

In a Viewpoint article published in JAMA on Monday, 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," write 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 warn.

It's important to consider, they note, 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.

"This interpersonal loss on a massive scale is compounded by societal disruption," they write. 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 say.

"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 write.

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 healthcare 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 state.

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 write.

"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 conclude.

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.

JAMA. Published October 12, 2020. Full text

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