More than 200,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19, and even that doesn’t paint a full picture of the tragedy.
The data visualization firm Periscopic has created a heartbreaking new series of interactive graphics called “Lifelines” that attempt to provide a more comprehensive look. They illustrate the effects that COVID-19 and the resulting economic recession have on mental health—showing that, ultimately, COVID-19-related fatalities will extend far beyond the official death count.
The project is based on data from a new report by the Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center on what they call “deaths of despair,” or fatalities due to accidental drug and alcohol overdoses and suicide. It notes that between 2007 and 2018, 1.6 million Americans died as a result of despair and predicts that number will hit nearly 2 million over the next decade. The question, as the series hauntingly lays out, is how many we can prevent with the right support.
Mental health was a crisis in its own right before the coronavirus hit earlier this year, as nearly 1 in 5 American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. And nearly half of Americans report that the pandemic is negatively effecting their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
Periscopic’s data visualizations capture the breadth of the problem, and show how deaths can increase depending on the severity of the economic crisis. In the first visualization, the screen is bisected by water, and lives are depicted as glowing orbs hovering above it. The user can adjust three sliders indicating mental healthcare access, employment status, and social connections, and orbs drift into the water in response. The visualization clearly shows the impact of unemployment: potentially 200,000 lives lost over the next 10 years if jobs don’t recover.
Dino Citraro, the cofounder of Periscopic, hopes the project gives more visibility to an often unspoken problem and helps people draw direct connections between how structural systems can affect mental health. Whether a person is employed, has access to mental healthcare, or is isolated can dramatically impact their mental health. Citraro hopes this visualization can provide additional context to policymakers as they assess how and when to safely reopen the economy. “This is a nuanced conversation, and there’s a lot of missing information about states, and ethnicities that are more susceptible than others. As a self-funded project, we couldn’t go as far as we wanted to,” Citraro says. “If anything, I’d say this story needs to be expanded.”