COVID mourners suffer PTSD

New international research led by Curtin University has found that approximately 9 in 10 people seeking support for having lost a loved one to COVID reported alarming PTSD symptoms.

Based on data for people seeking help from the UK’s National Bereavement Partnership, the study, conducted in collaboration with the US’ Portland Institute for Loss and Transition and Christopher Newport University, also found that nearly two-thirds of British COVID mourners experienced moderate or severe symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Of those surveyed, 83% reported clinically elevated PTSD symptoms, 64% experienced psychiatric distress, 57% suffered functional impairment and 39% reported clinically significant symptoms of dysfunctional grief.

Lead author Professor Lauren Breen, from Curtin’s School of Population Health, said the results, published June 30th in the British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, were alarming given that more than six million people have died from COVID worldwide.

“These survey results indicate a concerning ‘shadow pandemic’ in the wake of a COVID-19 death, with the vast majority of British mourners reporting alarming rates of psychological distress including constantly feeling on guard or easily startled,” Professor Breen said.

“The mourners who were seeking support from the National Bereavement Partnership also reported concerning symptoms of anxiety and depression, dysfunctional grief including wanting to die in order to be with their loved one, and functional impairment that was affecting their home and family responsibilities.

“In particular, these findings underscore the need to screen for high levels of trauma as well as grief, for potential referral to counsellors with specialised skills in treating the intersection of trauma and bereavement.”

Even though Australian COVID-related deaths have never reached the levels seen in the UK (175,000), Professor Breen agreed the findings had significant implications for our already beleaguered mental health system.

“We don’t yet know about rates of PTSD in Australians bereaved from COVID – we found a higher rate of this in the UK than in US samples – but what we do know is that… we’re likely to see sustained struggles with grief,” Professor Breen said.

“The 2021 Census revealed one in 12 Australians reported suffering from a long-term mental health condition, yet our mental health system is under-resourced, [and] as a psychologist, I’m very aware of the shortage of psychologists and the lengthy waiting periods before people have their first session.

“Even before the pandemic, a considerable proportion of bereaved people, about one-third, reported not receiving the support they would have liked, [and] the pandemic has exacerbated the gap between support need and support received.”

She explained that supporting a grieving patient can be challenging for a variety of reasons, such as patients not recognising that their symptoms are grief related, believing that their grief is of little medical interest or importance, or resisting treatment due to social factors.

“There is a big push right now to ‘move on’ from the pandemic and ‘get back to normal’, [and] because of this, I think there is a potential that people bereaved due to a COVID-19 death might experience stigma and blame,” Professor Breen said.

“People who think they might be judged harshly are less likely to reach out for social support or to seek professional help.”

Co-author Dr Robert Neimeyer, Director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, said the study suggested crucial themes to address in bereavement therapy for those survivors who did seek support.

“We found that much of the struggle that mourners reported… was explained by the difficulty they had in making sense of a senseless loss, and preserving their orientation in a bewildering, threatening and disempowering world,” Dr Neimeyer said.

“Not only did they lose their loved ones, but they also lost a sense of predictability, justice and control over the circumstances of the loss.”