There have been few moments in the country and the world’s recent history when we have collectively grieved for so many. Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, nearly 600,000 Americans have died, and over 3,500,000 people have died around the world. The dead are our family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and all are mourned. Recent data suggest that 33% of Americans know someone who died during Covid-19; that would be a total of about one hundred million Americans who are, in the moment, grieving personal losses, grief that in and of itself has implications for their health.
As we look past a global pandemic and move to rebuilding, the first step is acknowledging and recognizing the grief of many. This starts with our personal lives, in the opportunities we have to share grief with loved ones, and to acknowledge and make space for the sadness of the moment.
Beyond sadness, the science on the mental health consequences of grief should be sobering. In a study conducted in 2014, it was shown that the bereavement period is linked with greater risk of new onset of multiple psychiatric disorders, regardless of when the grief happens during the life course. We already know that with Covid-19 there has been a dramatic increase in anxiety or depressive disorders, with roughly four in 10 adults in the US reporting symptoms, an increase from one in 10 in January through June of 2019.
Recognizing that grief is almost certainly going to compound this psychological burden is an important reminder of the burden of mental health need that we are going to face as a country, readily outstripping available services. This burden will have a long tail and will temporarily be overlooked; it will not be newsworthy in the wake of the excitement of going without masks. But it will surely persist and reverberate across our schools and workplaces, and suggests the need, once and finally, for a redoubling of our mental health resources. Importantly, we know that those who are marginalized and have fewer resources are bearing the greater burden of mental disorders, making it that much more important that we develop mental health services that are accessible to all.
In time, it will be important for us to move to memorializing the moment that has harmed so many, to create visible markers of the pandemic we have lived through together, giving visual representation to the internal vocabulary of grief. Hong Kong has a tremendously moving memorial to those lost to SARS, for example, and New York City has honored those who died in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks through the 9/11 memorial. We should take similar steps to mark the grief of this moment, now and in the decades to come.
Michael Stein & Sandro Galea
As we re-emerge from the pandemic, 2021 stands to be a turning point year for public health. In The Turning Point’s weekly essays, we reflect on what we learned during 2020, and what we are learning during 2021, that can guide us to the creation of a better, healthier world.