A nurse treats a patient in an intensive care unit at a hospitalShare on Pinterest
One of the stresses for a family with a person with COVID-19 in an intensive care unit is they can’t visit the patient. Allison Dinner/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Researchers say family members of people in intensive care units (ICU) with COVID-19 face higher risks of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even months after their loved ones’ admission to the hospital.
  • Experts say family members of ICU patients generally face high levels of stress, but the health dangers associated with COVID-19 add additional trauma.
  • They also note that the debate about vaccination as well as the fact family members can’t visit the ICU causes additional stress.

People with family members in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) for COVID-19 show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a new study.

The research, led by Dr. Timothy Amass, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, looked at families of patients at 12 hospitals in Colorado, Washington, Louisiana, New York, and Massachusetts.

The patients in the study were admitted to an ICU with increased oxygen requirements and a COVID-19 diagnosis between February 1 and July 31, 2020.

Researchers assessed 330 family members of patients admitted to the ICU (except in New York City, which had a random sample of 25 percent of all admitted patients per month).

Before the pandemic, researchers said symptoms of PTSD were estimated to occur in approximately 30 percent of family members of ICU patients.

In the new study, 63 percent of family members were thought to have PTSD three to four months after their loved one’s ICU admission. The study authors reported that women and family members of Hispanic ethnicity were associated with higher risk. Those with higher scores also reported more distrust of medical practitioners.

The study concluded many family members of those in ICUs with COVID-19 reported “significant symptoms of PTSD at 3 and 6 months, more than has been seen in pre-pandemic populations.”

“The implications of these findings suggest that visitation restrictions may inadvertently generate a secondary public health crisis through an epidemic of stress-related disorders among family members of ICU patients,” the researchers wrote.

“Furthermore, these data may have relevance beyond the COVID-19 pandemic because many family members are unable to visit their loved ones during an ICU stay because of other common barriers,” they added.

“Additional research is needed to explore opportunities to improve family members’ experiences when they cannot be present while their loved one is admitted to the ICU and to determine the degree to which these symptoms persist and for how long.”

Experts say the study’s conclusions aren’t surprising, given the all-around trauma associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The symptoms and signs of PTSD are the same regardless of the trauma. So, the symptoms of PTSD would still be the same,” Thomas J. Jameson, the clinical director of the Ohana Luxury Drug Rehab and a licensed therapist in Hawaii, told Healthline.

“A person with PTSD might blame themselves for the trauma,” Jameson noted. “So, someone who has a loved one with COVID might blame themselves for causing their loved one’s illness.”

“I think that the difference with the pandemic is that it involved not only illness and death, but also social isolation, employment changes, and significant changes in everyday life,” Jameson added. “These things add to psychological distress and are more likely to trigger PTSD symptoms.”

The nature of COVID-19 also doesn’t allow loved ones to be near ICU patients, adding another level of stress.

“The slight difference from having someone in the ICU for other reasons was due to not being able to be at the person’s bedside, the unknown with this ‘new virus,’ the constant news reports – television, radio, social media, people talking at work, etc. – and significantly high death rates, which made this a bit more complex for people,” Tomanika Perry-Witherspoon, a clinical social worker in the Detroit area, told Healthline.

Families also deal with emotions surrounding vaccinations.

“Since the majority of people in the ICU due to COVID-19 are unvaccinated, their family members can have specific and more pronounced symptoms of negative alterations in their moods, such as anger, guilt, shame, and frustration since mitigation tools are widely available for most people,” Cornelia Gibson, EdD, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Richmond, California, told Healthline.

“People should seek professional help if any of these symptoms are impacting their daily functioning,” Gibson said. “No one wants to experience a trauma of any kind but when they do in the case of COVID-19, and having a loved one in the ICU, they can be taught to externalize their thoughts and feelings by journaling, educating themselves, and then speaking out and educating others about preventative measures so they, or their loved ones, do not have to experience this trauma.”

Trauma during the pandemic has come in numerous forms.

A new study, for example, reports that children’s mental health during the pandemic has been affected by things such as adult vaccination status as well as socioeconomic factors.