A couple of weeks ago, the Associated Press and others predicted that in a matter of weeks, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 would surpass 1 million. That it has taken longer than expected to reach this heartbreaking milestone does not soften the blow. But for many of us, the reality of it may feel less impactful than it should.
“We’re dealing with numbers that humans are just not able to comprehend,” Sara Cordes, a professor of psychology at Boston College, explains to the Associated Press. Cordes, who has long studied how people perceive quantity, goes on to say, “I can’t comprehend the lives of 1 million at one time and I think this is sort of self-preservation, to only think about the few that you have heard about.”
In an old posting on the news site Gizmodo.com, which covers the worlds of technology and science, mathematician Spencer Greenberg, co-founder of think tank Rebellion Research, explains our difficulty with large numbers this way: “We can easily visualize five things. We can even roughly visualize approximately 100 things.” But trying to wrap your head around a million people is nearly as useless as trying to imagine a hundred million.
In an effort to add some perspective, the Associated Press also reminds us that “COVID-19 has left an estimated 194,000 children in the U.S. without one or both of their parents. It has deprived communities of leaders, teachers and caregivers. It has robbed us of expertise and persistence, humor and devotion.”
More easily grasped is yet another shocking recent report, this time from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that, as of February, 60% of Americans and 75% of children have been infected with the coronavirus — more than half of all of us.
“While the numbers came as a shock to many Americans, some scientists said they had expected the figures to be even higher, given the contagious variants that have marched through the nation over the past two years,” writes New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli. Many now believe that “a gain in population-wide immunity may offer at least a partial bulwark against future waves,” he adds. We are possibly entering a “new phase of the pandemic in which infections may be common at times but cause less harm.”
Not all Americans will reap such benefits. “Up to 30% of people infected with the coronavirus may have persistent symptoms, including worrisome changes to the brain and heart,” Mandavilli adds. “The long-term impacts on health care are not clear but certainly worth taking very seriously, as a fraction of people will be struggling for a long time with the consequences,” said Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Those friends, loved ones and associates of the tragic million (and growing) of those lost must also not be forgotten. They surely now extend into several million or more left to grieve their passing. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the level of extended grieving over the past two years has prompted them to formalize a new diagnosis: prolonged grief disorder, characterized by “incapacitating feelings of grief.” This diagnosis provides a new framework for treating patients affected by loss by now allowing treatment providers to bill insurance companies for such services, an option not possible before.
“The timing of this addition to the (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is also important, since there is so much loss in the world right now and many people are experiencing the long-term effects of that,” Naomi Torres-Mackie, clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and head of research at The Mental Health Coalition, tells Health.com.
So much can get lost as these numbers and statistics keep unfolding and piling up, often nearly impossible for the reader to intuitively understand their broader implications. Sometimes they appear in reports where they are not expected, such as the spring 2022 Harvard Youth Poll.
For more than 20 years, the Harvard Public Opinion Project poll has provided a comprehensive look at the political opinions, voting trends and views on public service held by young Americans. It is considered an important tool for political prognosticators.
Conducted between March 15 and March 30 and issued by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, the poll reveals that we are in the thick of a troubling mental health crisis among young Americans. “Despite the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, there’s virtually no improvement in the mental health of young Americans,” they report. “A majority (52%) report feelings of depression or hopelessness, and 24% report thoughts of self-harm … Most young Americans under 30 (52%) report feeling ‘down, depressed, or hopeless’ for several days or more in the past two weeks.”
“Unlike many other areas in the survey, there are no statistical differences based on age, level of education, race, ethnicity, or whether someone lives in the city, suburb, small town, or rural area … 71% agree that there’s a mental health crisis in America,” says the report.
“While 24% of 18-to-29-year-olds report having thoughts at least several times in the last two weeks that they would be ‘better off dead’ or of ‘hurting themselves,’ this represents a slight improvement over the 28% who said the same one year ago.”
In another analysis, a research letter published in JAMA Pediatrics in April found the proportion of suicides among adolescents increased in 14 states during the pandemic.
It is encouraging to see that more public figures like Simone Biles, Ariana Grande and Ryan Reynolds are now speaking out about mental health issues. When public figures open up about their struggles, it can help break down the stigma associated with the subject and spark discussions. Most importantly, it can move people to seek treatment when needed. But if the numbers and statistics show anything, it is that we need much more than talk. We need to treat mental health as the crisis it is.