Many COVID-19 survivors are likely at higher risk of developing mental illness, psychiatrists said Monday after a large study found that 20% of people infected with the coronavirus were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within 90 days.
Anxiety, depression, and insomnia were most common among recovered COVID-19 patients in the study who developed mental health problems. Researchers at Oxford University in the UK also found a significantly higher risk of dementia, a disease of the brain.
“People were concerned that COVID-19 survivors are at higher risk for mental health problems, and our results … show that it is likely,” said Paul Harrison, professor of psychiatry at Oxford.
Doctors and scientists around the world urgently need to investigate the root causes and identify new treatments for mental illness after COVID-19, Harrison said.
“(Health) services need to be ready to provide care, especially as our results are likely to be underestimated (in terms of the number of psychiatric patients),” he added.
The study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry Journal, analyzed electronic health records from 69 million people in the United States, including more than 62,000 cases of COVID-19. The results are likely to be the same for those affected by COVID-19 worldwide, the researchers said
In the three months after the positive COVID-19 test, one in five survivors was diagnosed with an initial diagnosis of anxiety, depression, or insomnia. This is about twice as likely as other patient groups over the same period, the researchers said.
The study also found that people with pre-existing mental illness were 65% more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than people without.
Mental health specialists, who were not directly involved in the study, said their results add to growing evidence that COVID-19 can affect the brain and mind and increase the risk of a number of psychiatric conditions.
“This is likely due to a combination of the psychological stressors associated with this particular pandemic and the physical effects of the disease,” said Michael Bloomfield, consultant psychiatrist at University College London.
Simon Wessely, Regius Professor of Psychiatry at King’s College London, said the finding that people with mental disorders are also at higher risk of developing COVID-19 reflected similar findings in previous infectious disease outbreaks.
“COVID-19 affects the central nervous system and therefore can directly exacerbate the disorders that follow. However, this research confirms that this is not the whole story and that this risk is increased by previous illnesses,” he said.
Marjorie Wallace, executive director of UK mental health charity SANE, said the study reflected her charity’s experience during the pandemic.
“Our hotline is dealing with an increasing number of first-time callers who are involved with mental health problems and those who have relapsed because their anxiety and anxiety have become unbearable,” she said.