Many COVID-19 survivors are likely to be at greater risk of developing mental illness, psychiatrists said, after a large study found 20 percent of those infected with the coronavirus are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within 90 days.
Anxiety, depression and insomnia were most common among the study’s recovered COVID-19 patients who developed mental health problems, and the researchers also found significantly higher risks of dementia, a brain impairment condition.
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“People have been worried that COVID-19 survivors will be at greater risk of mental health problems, and our findings … show this to be likely,” said Paul Harrison, author of the study and professor of psychiatry at the United Kingdom’s University of Oxford.
Doctors and scientists around the world urgently need to investigate the causes and identify new treatments for mental illness after COVID-19, Harrison said.
The study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal on Monday, analysed electronic health records of 69 million people in the United States, including more than 62,000 who had cases of COVID-19.
In the three months following testing positive for COVID-19, one in five survivors were recorded as having a first-time diagnosis of anxiety, depression or insomnia.
This was about twice as likely as for other groups of patients in the same period, the researchers said.
The study also found that people with a pre-existing mental illness were 65 percent more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than those without one.
Two main factors could explain why people tend to develop anxiety and depressive symptoms, according to the study’s author.
“The virus might be directly affecting the brain in some ways, maybe through the immune system, which leads to the mental health problem,” Harrison told Al Jazeera.
“But more importantly, the experience of having had COVID-19 and understanding all the things that might have happened to you with all the fears and concerns that the virus led people to have, may also be a reason.”
“[Health] services need to be ready to provide care, especially since our results are likely to be underestimates [of the number of psychiatric patients],” he added.
Mental health specialists not directly involved with the study said its findings add to growing evidence that COVID-19 can affect the brain and mind, increasing the risk of a range of psychiatric illnesses.
Simon Wessely, regius professor of psychiatry at King’s College London, said the finding that those with mental health disorders are also at higher risk of getting COVID-19 echoed similar findings from previous infectious disease outbreaks.
“COVID-19 affects the central nervous system, and so might directly increase subsequent disorders. But this research confirms that is not the whole story, and that this risk is increased by previous ill health,” he said.