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Covid-19 grief disorder rates ‘higher than expected’

Person signs the National Covid Memorial Wall

Press release issued: 19 September 2023

New research finds higher than expected rates of Prolonged Grief Disorder among the pandemic bereaved.

Cases of Prolonged Grief Disorder among people bereaved during the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to be significantly higher than pre-pandemic, indicates new research from Cardiff University and the University of Bristol.

Prolonged Grief Disorder is a mental health condition which can develop caused by the death of someone close, such as a child or partner. It is most likely to occur after a violent or abrupt death.

In the first published longitudinal study of bereavement during the Covid-19 pandemic, the research team investigated the rates of Prolonged Grief Disorder among a cohort of bereaved people.

The study surveyed 711 people bereaved in the UK during the first and second waves of the pandemic (between 16 March 2020 and 2 January 2021). The researchers followed up with the participants 13 months and 25 months after their bereavement. They found that rates of Prolonged Grief Disorder were significantly higher than during pre-pandemic times.

Pre-pandemic estimates suggest around 10% of bereaved people experience Prolonged Grief Disorder. The study found that during the pandemic over 35% of people who took part in the survey met the criteria for indicated Prolonged Grief Disorder 13 months post-bereavement, and 29% of people met these criteria 25 months after their bereavement.

Dr Emily Harrop, Research Fellow from the Marie Curie Research Centre at Cardiff University School of Medicine, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has been a devastating and enduring mass-bereavement event, with uniquely difficult sets of circumstances experienced by people bereaved at this time.

“We wanted to understand more about the impact that these experiences have had on people, including how coping with and adjusting to a bereavement during the pandemic might be different to non-pandemic times.

“In our study, over three times as many people were showing signs of Prolonged Grief Disorder 13 months after the death of a loved one during the pandemic than would have been expected during pre-pandemic times,” added Dr Harrop.

Dr Lucy Selman, Associate Professor from the Palliative and End of Life Care Research Group and the Centre for Academic Primary Care at the University of Bristol, said: “We identified a number of factors strongly associated with an increased likelihood of experiencing Prolonged Grief Disorder, including unexpected deaths, social isolation and loneliness in early bereavement, and a lack of social support over time.

“Feeling well supported by healthcare professionals following the death was associated with reduced levels of prolonged grief symptoms – so the support that professionals provide around the time of the death makes an important difference to processing a bereavement.”

The research also found that people with lower levels of formal education were more likely to experience symptoms of Prolonged Grief Disorder, suggesting poor outcomes among people experiencing social disadvantage.

“Our research not only helps us to understand how mass-bereavement events can impact grieving and mental health, but also has important implications for bereavement policy, provision and practice. This new understanding will be crucial in preparing for future pandemics and mass-bereavement events,” added Dr Harrop.

Based on their research findings, the team have just launched the new Grief Support Guide, which supports bereaved people by providing information on the different types of bereavement support available in the UK and how to access them. The Guide was developed in partnership with Marie Curie, the National Bereavement Alliance, the Good Grief Festival, and Compassionate Cymru.

The research was funded by the UKRI Economic and Social Research Council and Marie Curie.

Paper: Prolonged grief during and beyond the pandemic: Factors associated with levels of grief in a four time-point longitudinal survey of people bereaved in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Published in Frontiers Public Health on 19 September 2023.

Further information

About the Centre for Academic Primary Care

The Centre for Academic Primary Care (CAPC) at the University of Bristol is a leading centre for primary care research in the UK, one of nine forming the NIHR School for Primary Care Research.

It sits within Bristol Medical School, an internationally recognised centre of excellence for population health research and teaching.

Follow on Twitter: @capcbristol

About the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR)

The mission of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. We do this by:

· Funding high quality, timely research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care;

· Investing in world-class expertise, facilities and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services;

· Partnering with patients, service users, carers and communities, improving the relevance, quality and impact of our research;

· Attracting, training and supporting the best researchers to tackle complex health and social care challenges;

· Collaborating with other public funders, charities and industry to help shape a cohesive and globally competitive research system;

· Funding applied global health research and training to meet the needs of the poorest people in low and middle income countries.

NIHR is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. Its work in low and middle income countries is principally funded through UK Aid from the UK government.

The NIHR is the research partner of the NHS, public health and social care.

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