Covid-19 has shed light on another pandemic of depression, anxiety and grief

Erin N. Marcus is a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Miami and a Public Voices fellow.

Along with the resurgence of covid-19, an insidious and less perceptible pandemic has arisen: one of anxiety, depression and grief.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen among people seeking help in the primary care clinic where I work. I think of the woman who, after her mother and sister died of covid, lost the motivation to take her diabetes medication, or do much of anything else. The man who recovered from covid but who now can’t sleep because of flashbacks to his time in the hospital. The woman whose adult children recovered from covid — but who is so anxious about venturing out of her tiny apartment that her normally well-controlled blood pressure has rocketed to dangerously high levels.

My observations are consistent with those of national surveys, which have found significant increases in depression and anxiety during the pandemic. In one large nationwide survey, U.S. adults were more than three times more likely to screen positive for anxiety and depressive disorders, compared with one year earlier. Another survey found a significant increase in alcohol use.

Those surveys were conducted in April through June, before the spread of the coronavirus escalated to encompass the entire nation. Today, it’s likely that the psychological toll is much worse. Every person who dies of covid-19 leaves behind, on average, nine close family members — a grandchild, son, daughter, brother, sister, spouse, mother or father. The grief experienced by those surviving family members and friends is a normal reaction to loss. But some psychologists fear that the circumstances of covid-19 — in which people might die unexpectedly or alone, and without the normal rituals of community remembrance such as a memorial service — may increase the likelihood of prolonged grief disorder, a disabling condition that can last years and raise the risk of suicide or alcohol and drug abuse.

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