UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Losing a spouse can be a devastating experience for anyone. A new study found that experiencing the death of a spouse due to COVID-19 may be worse for mental health than deaths from other causes.
Penn State researchers found that while there were strong links between the recent death of a spouse and poorer mental health both before and during the pandemic, people who lost a spouse to COVID-19 were more likely to report symptoms of depression and loneliness than comparable people. whose spouses died shortly before the start of the pandemic.
Ashton Verdery, the Harry and Elissa Sichi Early Career Professor of Sociology, Demography and Social Data Analytics at Penn State, said the study underscores the ongoing health risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, even for those who have not been infected. from the virus. .
“These risks apply to millions of people around the globe who have lost their wives, husbands and partners,” Verdery said. “Along with evidence suggesting that those who experience the highest rates of mental health problems following the death of a spouse also face the greatest risks of subsequent physical health problems, our study highlights the potentially important health consequences for those who lose loved ones to the pandemic. “
He added that these findings, recently published in Journals of Gerontology – Series B, may help inform policy and suggest the need for additional clinical attention for those who have recently lost loved ones to COVID-19.
Previous research by Verdery and his team estimated that 8.8 million individuals lost close family members to COVID-19 by April 2022. Additionally, “bereavement”—the experience of the recent loss of a friend or family member family – has been shown to have poor health effects.
But while the loss of a spouse, in particular, has been linked to an increased risk of mental health problems and declines in physical health, Verdery said less was known about whether losing a spouse to a traumatic event like a pandemic posed greater risks. higher than usual.
“Other studies have found that when a person experiences a sudden or traumatic ‘bad death’—characterized by factors such as greater pain, social isolation, and psychological distress—it can be more difficult for loved ones themselves, who then face high health risks,” Verdery said. “Given the magnitude of the impact of the pandemic, we wanted to see if this effect held true for those who lost a spouse to COVID-19.” .
For the study, researchers analyzed data from 27 countries during two different time periods: before the pandemic, from October 2019 to March 2020; and at the beginning of the pandemic, from June to August 2020.
The data included information on mental health, including participants reporting their feelings of depression, loneliness and sleep problems. Data were also collected on whether participants had recently lost a spouse, when the death occurred, and whether the death was due to COVID-19.
While the study specifically explored the effects of losing a spouse, the researchers said they believe the findings may extend to other deaths experienced during the pandemic, even if they were not a result of COVID-19.
“Many deaths during the pandemic are likely to be made more traumatic for loved ones by fear of seeking medical care and hospitals restricting friends and family from visiting patients, all of which can make it difficult for people to process deaths regardless of its specific cause,” Verdery. said. “Mourning and bereavement were also complicated during the pandemic by social isolation, along with other stressors such as financial insecurity and a lack of practical and emotional support, all of which can further exacerbate emotional distress.”
The researchers said that in the future, additional research could explore whether other types of loss during the pandemic — such as children losing their parents — carry similar additional risks.
Haowei Wang, Penn State; Emily Smith-Greenaway, University of Southern California; Shawn Bauldry, Purdue University; and Rachel Margolis, University of Western Ontario, also participated in this work.
The National Institute on Aging and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development helped support this research.