Severe COVID-19 increases risk of PTSD for family members- study

Researchers say visitation restrictions implemented during the pandemic may have caused a "second public health crisis."

An elderly woman suffers from PTSD. [illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
An elderly woman suffers from PTSD. [illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Post-traumatic stress disorder doesn't only happen to war veterans. According to a new study led by University of Colorado School of Medicine researchers published Monday in the peer-reviewed academic journal JAMA Internal Medicine, families of patients in the intensive care unit who have COVID-19 face similar experiences of loss of control, anxiety, depression and PTSD, in what the researchers are calling a "second public health crisis." 

The team surveyed 330 people three months after their family members were admitted to the ICU with COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic (February- July 2020). Visitation restrictions at hospitals were implemented at the time to prevent the spread of the highly contagious and sometimes fatal virus.

The findings state that nearly two-thirds of those secluded from visiting their ill relative in ICU were suffering from stress-related disorders three months after their family member was hospitalized. That’s more than double from pre-pandemic levels, the study states, when about 30% reported stress-related conditions.

 Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the Coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on February 09, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the Coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on February 09, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The study also noted that distrust in hospitals increased among family members during the pandemic, but that more research is needed to determine whether this is linked to strict visitation restrictions. 

“Our findings suggest that visitation restrictions may have inadvertently contributed to a secondary public health crisis: an epidemic of stress-related disorders among family members of ICU patients,” said Dr. Timothy Amass, assistant professor of medicine at the university and an author of the study. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically impacted mental health since its onset more than two years ago. A previous study, conducted by Maccabi Health and the KI Institute, found that among Israeli teenagers there has been a 55% rise in eating disorders, a 38% rise in diagnoses of depression and a 33% rise in anxiety disorders since COVID-19 began. A poll conducted by the Social Workers Union shows a similar trend, adding that 44% of social workers reported a rise in suicidal behavior among teens.

Ariella Marsden contributed to this report.