A quarter of a million people have experienced a sudden bereavement due to the coronavirus pandemic – placing thousands at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a charity estimates.
More than 12,500 of those who lost loved ones to the virus could develop PTSD, potentially costing the economy hundreds of millions of pounds, the bereavement service Sudden said.
Without early care and social support, the charity fears people in this group could go on to develop PTSD.
It analysed UK Government data on people who have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19. The death toll passed 50,000 last week.
Based on five people being left seriously bereaved on average by a death, this gives a total of 221,520 people in England, 15,715 in Scotland, 10,540 in Wales and 4,050 in Northern Ireland as of November 11.
In pre-pandemic times, cautious estimates suggest around 50,000 people die unexpectedly in a year, the charity said.
This suggests the number of sudden, unexpected deaths (and those bereaved by them) may have doubled by the end of 2020 due to the pandemic.
This would take the number of these deaths to more than 100,000 over the whole year, meaning those suddenly bereaved would exceed half a million.
Previous research suggests around 5% of people who experience a sudden bereavement go on to develop PTSD.
The charity estimates the long-term economic cost of dealing with PTSD in those bereaved by the pandemic could be more than £800 million, based on previous research from LSE estimating that the direct and indirect costs could be as high as £64,000 per person.
However, the charity fears the proportion of those who go on to develop PTSD could be higher, given the restrictions impeding access to services, support and meaningful social contact, and additional stressors during the pandemic.
Charity says early support can make a difference
Another charity warned that, without timely support, the country could face decades of social and mental health problems associated with unresolved grief.
Sudden chief executive Mary Williams said: “As we pass the grim milestone of 50,000 people who have sadly lost their lives to coronavirus, the sudden bereavement pandemic is accelerating rapidly.
“It’s vital that people facing a sudden bereavement get emotional and practical support quickly, to help them cope, understand the reactions they are experiencing, stay safe and have their needs met.
“Early support can make a significant difference to someone’s long-term wellbeing, as well as significantly reduce the economic costs to society of sudden bereavement.”
Sudden is calling for more funding from the Government to provide early intervention support throughout 2021 to help people deal with unexpected deaths from any cause.
The end of life charity Marie Curie said it is “vitally important” people get support at the right time, but that hundreds of thousands of people have been unable to grieve properly or get the help from family, friends and professionals they would normally.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “Every death from this virus is a tragedy and our sympathies are with everyone who has lost loved ones. We recognise the impact this unprecedented period has had on people’s mental health and wellbeing.
“We are working with experts from the NHS and public health to assess what help and support people might need to maintain their mental health over the coming months and we will bring forward our winter plan for mental health and wellbeing shortly.
“We would encourage people who may be struggling with their mental health as a result of a bereavement to come forward for help.”