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A new study from the United Kingdom found that people who were sick with COVID-19 had a significant chance of developing a psychiatric disorder after recovering.
According to the report published in The Lancet on November 9, 18 percent of COVID-19 patients developed a mental health issue — like depression, anxiety, or dementia — within 3 months of diagnosis. Their risk was doubled compared to people who didn’t have COVID-19.
Doctors have suspected that COVID-19 was linked to higher rates of mental health problems.
A recent survey from Ecuador has also shown that people diagnosed with COVID-19 commonly experience anxiety, insomnia, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Though researchers are still working to understand exactly how the new coronavirus impacts not just the mind but brain function, this new research helps to further establish the link.
“COVID-19 can result in psychological issues due to both pandemic stress and the physical effects of the disease,” says Brittany LeMonda, Ph.D., a senior neuropsychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
COVID-19 Patients' Risk for First-Time Diagnosis is Doubled
Researchers from the University of Oxford and NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre evaluated the health records of 69 million people in the United States, which included over 62,000 people diagnosed with COVID-19.
Nearly 6 percent of adults diagnosed with COVID-19 developed a psychiatric disorder for the first time ever within 90 days, compared to just 3.4 percent of patients who didn’t have COVID-19.
In other words, those who developed COVID-19 had a two times greater risk for developing a mood or anxiety disorder for the very first time.
Older adults with COVID-19 also had a two to three times greater risk for developing dementia.
The researchers found that having a psychiatric disorder in the year before testing positive for COVID-19 was linked to a 65 percent greater risk for getting the disease.
How the New Coronavirus Affects the Mind
Simply being diagnosed with a novel, potentially life-threatening disease can trigger stress and anxiety.
“Given the novelty and scope of the pandemic, there is little-to-no framework, particularly during the lifespan of the majority of the population alive, for how to manage the threat to health, lifestyle, and societal change,” says Jessica Stern, Ph.D., a psychologist and clinical assistant professor with the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.
Those who test positive must also isolate, which can contribute to anxiety and depression. Typically, patients can lean on loved ones as they recover.
“In the case of COVID, most patients know they should avoid transmitting the disease to others and therefore lack that kind of comfort and support,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medicine and host of the Personology podcast.
Battling the disease itself can also be taxing for those who develop moderate to severe symptoms.
“COVID-19 diagnosis and treatment is more likely to be traumatic than other medical conditions due to the potential severity of the illness, the novelty of the illness and associated uncertainty in its treatment, and the isolation involved,” says Stern.
Many COVID-19 patients, now called “long-haulers,” endure symptoms that last for months and interfere with their daily lives.
“It may take up to months to recover from COVID, which can result in a number of challenges; for example, difficulties returning to work, difficulties caring for children, or difficulties resuming one’s ‘normal’ routines,” says LeMonda.
How the New Coronavirus Affects the Brain
Scientists now know that COVID-19 isn’t just a respiratory illness but a disease that can reach many critical organs, including the brain.
Numerous reports show COVID-19 patients frequently experience neurological complications. such as confusion, dizziness, delirium, and other cognitive impairments.
Scientists are still working to understand how the novel coronavirus interacts with the central nervous system, but they suspect the new coronavirus may damage the brain’s blood supply and lead to swelling in the brain tissue.
“If the virus directly impacts the central nervous system, this can result in significant neurological and psychiatric illness,” says LeMonda.
Plus, an impaired respiratory system could diminish oxygen supply to the brain, LeMonda added.
In addition, Stern says there’s a strong correlation between immunological functioning and mental health.
COVID-19 can disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm, which can impair their sleep, lead to insomnia, and snowball into depression, anxiety, or other cognitive changes, Stern notes.
Other Viruses Impact Mental Health, Too
Other viral infections are known to impact the mind and brain.
A study from July suggested that both severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — two other life-threatening coronaviruses — can cause delirium, anxiety, depression, mania, insomnia, and memory issues.
“Any virus that attacks the central nervous system, leads to hypoxic brain injury, or impacts physical functioning can affect mental health,” LeMonda said.
The researchers’ findings suggest that people with preexisting psychiatric disorders may be more prone to developing COVID-19.
A study from October suggested that people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder are more likely to have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
“High anxiety increases circulating cortisol, which has health effects including diminished immunity, which may play a role,” says Saltz.
In other words, being highly anxious or depressed could ultimately make a person more susceptible to COVID-19.
Take Care of Yourself, Seek Treatment
If you develop COVID-19, it’s crucial to listen to your doctor’s advice and prioritize your physical health: Maintain a healthy diet, stick to a consistent sleep schedule, and stay physically active when possible.
Saltz recommends trying relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, mindful meditation, and muscle relaxation.
LeMonda says it’s important to keep in mind that recovery can last weeks, sometimes months.
“A better understanding of the recovery trajectory may lessen one’s anxiety and lead to improved mental health,” LeMonda said.
The Bottom Line
New research suggests that people diagnosed with COVID-19 may have a significant risk for developing an anxiety or mood disorder after recovering.
Scientists are still uncovering how the new coronavirus impacts the brain and the central nervous system, but they believe the infection could inhibit blood and oxygen flow to the brain and in some cases, trigger brain swelling.
Furthermore, being diagnosed in and of itself is stressful: The novel disease is potentially life-threatening, and those who get sick are asked to isolate from loved ones. Symptoms can occasionally persist for months, disrupting people’s everyday lives and functioning and putting them at risk for mental health issues.