COVID-19 already has been linked to an assortment of alarming long-term physical health effects, and now a new study illuminates what the virus can also do to a person’s brain.
A report in the medical journal The Lancet found that those diagnosed with COVID-19 are at a greater risk for developing mental health disorders. The data suggests that 1 in 5 patients who survived the illness will receive a mental health diagnosis within roughly three months of getting the infection.
The most common conditions experts have seen include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, insomnia and dementia.
Researchers from Oxford University in the U.K. examined the health records for 69 million people in the U.S. Of that group, more than 62,000 had contracted the coronavirus.
The scientists discovered that an estimated 20% of those with COVID-19 were also diagnosed with a psychiatric illness for the first time ― all within 90 days of getting sick. This was double the likelihood of patients in other groups who were not diagnosed with the coronavirus. The study also found that people with a pre-existing mental health condition were 65% more likely to have COVID-19.
The research had some limitations. The health records examined did not include identifying information, including social and economic factors. Given how much of a role demographics play in mental health outcomes, that could affect the results of the study, according to the researchers.
It’s also unknown who made the mental health diagnoses. Doctors or mental health care providers may be more attuned to patients with COVID-19 compared with other illnesses right now, which may have led to a quicker and more accurate mental health assessment. (It’s notoriously difficult to get an accurate mental health diagnosis normally; the process can take up to 10 years in some cases.)
That said, the researchers stressed that the results highlight the need to investigate how COVID-19 affects a person’s mind. Data collected so far clearly indicates a mind-body connection when it comes to COVID-19.
Other research has found that COVID-19 could age the brain and lead to other cognitive issues; patients have also anecdotally reported experiencing mental health side effects like hallucinations.
This information doesn’t come as a shock to psychiatrists, who deeply understand the ways mental and physical health can be so interconnected.
“We need to understand how integral mental health is to the conversation of COVID, COVID recovery and COVID management,” said Jessica Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St Louis who was not affiliated with the study.
“Mental health experts need to be advising on COVID plans moving forward,” Gold said. “We also need to realize and acknowledge that mental illness is real, valid and as worthy of talking about as physical illness. In fact, as this study suggests, it is both caused by physical illness and a risk factor for it.”
Therapists have also expressed concerns over the pandemic’s toll on people’s mental health. Post-traumatic stress syndrome, loneliness, situational depression and anxiety caused by uncertainty are all increasing, and experts expect to see these issues develop more in a larger number of people this winter.
“We are already living in a time when our mental health is particularly strained. We are seeing high rates of mental illness across the board ― in multiple populations ― and this only adds another hit, another risk, another compounder to the mix for an already vulnerable population,” Gold said.
“We need to take this data seriously because we do not and have never had enough resources to manage this much mental health need,” she continued. “And with climbing COVID rates, this study suggests the need for mental health care will only continue to climb as well.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
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