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"COVID Has Put the World at Risk of Prolonged Grief Disorder"

Scientific American interviewed Dr. Vickie Mays, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor of health policy and management, about the impact of the pandemic on mental health in the United States after some 586,000 COVID-19-deaths.

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Date: 
Wednesday, May 19, 2021
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The deaths of more than 586,000 people in the U.S. from COVID since the spring of 2020 have left many millions grieving. A sizable number of these bereaved individuals will find their anguish lasts an unusually long time, does not diminish and renders their life almost unbearable, mental health specialists say.

People who sufferer this intense bereavement are frequently unable to keep their job, leave their home or care for other loved ones. Even those who are able to navigate some of everyday life describe their agonized existence as just waiting to die. Their continued high level of stress can damage the body, increasing inflammation and risks for associated illnesses such as heart disease.

This condition, a psychiatric state called prolonged grief disorder, typically lasts for many months after a loss—one year in the U.S. or six months per international criteria. The condition is much worse than normal grieving, says Katherine Shear, a psychiatrist at the Columbia University School of Social Work and founder of the Center for Complicated Grief. And the isolation surrounding so many pandemic deaths likely makes people more vulnerable to it. “There are so many aspects of the pandemic that are going to be risk factors for people having a hard time adapting to these losses,” Shear says.

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