In Depth

Coronavirus: the psychological illnesses that can be triggered by Covid

New study finds that one in five patients infected with the virus go on to suffer from mental disorder

Almost 20% of coronavirus patients are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder or mental health issue within three months of testing positive for Covid-19, a new study has found.

The research, outlined in a paper in The Lancet, adds to the growing list of “long Covid” symptoms being reported.  Experts have warned that “action is needed to mitigate the mental health toll” of the global pandemic, says The Guardian.

Increased risk

Researchers from the University of Oxford and NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre analysed the health records of almost 70 million people in the US and found that nearly one in five who had tested positive for the new coronavirus were then diagnosed with a mental illness within 14 to 90 days.

The analysis included data on “more than 62,000 cases of Covid-19 that did not require a hospital stay or an emergency department visit”, The Guardian reports.

The study also found that the correlation between mental illness and coronavirus goes both ways: people with professionally diagnosed pre-existing mental health disorders were about 65% more likely to be diagnosed with Covid-19 than people without.

It is “unclear exactly why” people suffering from mental health issues are more likely to be infected, says NPR. “The study controlled for certain factors, including physical risk factors and those who were having serious housing and economic difficulties – but the risk persisted.”

“This finding was unexpected and needs investigation,” said lead study author Dr Maxime Taquet, an academic foundation officer at Oxford. “In the meantime, having a psychiatric disorder should be added to the list of risk factors for Covid-19.” 

Spotting the symptoms

Psychiatry professor Paul Harrison, who co-authored the study, suggests that while a global pandemic will cause a heightened sense of anxiety in many people, something more severe than circumstancial mental health issues lies behind the research findings.

The study was based on data covering “just the first three months” of the health crisis, Harrison told NPR. “We of course don’t know, in longer-term follow-ups, whether these risks will go on increasing - or whether once you get to three months, then the risks after you’ve had Covid really go back to the baseline risks that all of us experience.”

Experts say that symptoms to look out for in the wake of a coronavirus diagnosis include anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and insomnia.

“We’re seeing a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear, a lot of sadness, a lot of sense of isolation,” said Lauri Pasch, a clinical psychologist at the University of California who has been working at a rehabilitation clinic for patients who’ve been hospitalised for Covid.

The new study also found that coronavirus sufferers are significantly more likely to receive a diagnosis of dementia within three months of testing positive.

However, Harrison stresses that no direct link between the coronavirus and mental health issues has been established. He notes that, for instance, some people people affected by the virus may already have been developing dementia, but were only diagnosed for that condition after seeking medical help for Covid-19 symptoms.

“It’s not at all implausible that Covid-19 might have some direct effect on your brain and your mental health,” he said. “But I think that, again, remains to be positively demonstrated.”

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