COVID-19 and Mental Health: Study Reveals Increased Risk of Mental Illness in Recovered Patients

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Discussions of Covid and mental health have so far focused mainly on the effect of the restrictions, isolation, and stress associated with the pandemic. Our entire way of life has been disrupted, and that has clearly taken a toll on people’s mental health.

But now a large new study raises troubling evidence that the virus itself may increase the risk of developing mental illness, as well as associated behavioral problems like substance abuse. The study, published in the journal The BMJ, tracked 154,000 Covid patients in the Veterans Health Administration system. The researchers compared their experiences in the year after they recovered with a control group who did not get the virus. Crucially, the study was restricted to patients who had no mental health issues for at least two years before contracting the virus.

Among the study’s findings:

  • Covid patients were 39% more likely to be diagnosed with depression and 35% more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety.
  • Those who contracted Covid were also 38% more likely to be diagnosed with stress disorders and 41% more likely to be diagnosed with sleep disorders.
  • Additional, recovered Covid patients were 80% more likely to develop cognitive problems like brain fog, confusion, and forgetfulness.
  • Finally, they were 34% more likely to abuse opioids, and 20% more likely to develop other substance abuse problems.

The researchers are quick to point out that the vast majority of recovered Covid patients do not develop mental health symptoms. Only around 5% of those in the study were diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or other disorders. But the increased risk as compared to those who did not get the virus is nonetheless significant.

Researchers wanted to be sure it was the virus itself, and not just the traumatic experience of being sick, that caused the higher risk of mental illness. They compared people hospitalized for Covid with those hospitalized for other reasons, and still found a higher risk amongst the Covid group.

Dr. Maura Boldrini, an associate professor of psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center, wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings. “It’s striking to me how many times we’ve seen people with these new symptoms with no previous psychiatric history.”

The exact reason Covid increases risk of mental health issues hasn’t yet been determined. Dr. Boldrini was one of the authors of another study published last year showing evidence that Covid can generate inflammation in the brain. She and others believe the mental health impact of Covid is likely due to a combination of biological and psychological factors.

These new findings add to an already high level of concern among experts about the long-term mental health repercussions of the pandemic. As early as December of 2020, a group of fourteen top CEOs issued an op-ed in which they warned that America’s “chronically underfunded” mental health care system was in danger of being overwhelmed by the effects of the pandemic. Investing in our mental health infrastructure, and ensuring equitable access to mental health services, must certainly be priorities in the coming years.

Jerome Puryear

Dr. Jerome Puryear Jr., MD, MBA, is a Health and Well-being coach and renowned Obesity in Medicine expert. With a holistic perspective on patient care, Dr. JP is dedicated to helping individuals maximize their health and well-being.