Even over a year into the pandemic, there are still many unknowns surrounding COVID-19. One of the most pressing concerns facing doctors and scientists is determining the long-term effects of infection. A recent study has shed some light on this topic, and it’s of particular interest to those of us in the field of psychiatry—six months after being diagnosed with COVID-19, 1 in 3 patients also experienced a psychiatric or neurological illness.
Although most of these illnesses were mood disorders, there were also incidences of stroke and dementia. About 1 in 8 of the patients were diagnosed for the first time with a neurological or psychiatric illness, which is twice the rate of a control group involving flu and other non-COVID respiratory infections.
COVID-19 and Psychiatric Illness
For the sake of this blog post, let’s set aside the neurological illnesses and focus on the psychiatric illnesses like anxiety and depression. There are a few questions we need to answer before drawing conclusions from this study:
- Is something about the COVID-19 virus causing psychiatric illnesses, perhaps by rewiring or attacking the brain in some way?
- Are people experiencing psychiatric illnesses because of the trauma of either their initial COVID-19 infection or long-haul symptoms?
- Is this simply a matter of correlation?
This study, along with previous research, indicates that patients who were treated in an ICU were at a greater risk for developing a neuropsychiatric illness. It’s easy to see a connection between illnesses like stroke and dementia and COVID, but it’s much more ambiguous when it comes to psychiatric illnesses—how can we know if they’re caused by damage from the virus or if they’re more situational?
Authors of the study speculate that there could be a combination of psychological, biological, and psychosocial factors at play in the development of these illnesses.
What We Know About COVID-19 and Mood Disorders
There are still many questions to be answered about whether COVID-19 infection directly causes mood disorders and other psychiatric illnesses, but we do know that the pandemic has had a profound impact on nearly all Americans and their mental health.
People who have a history of anxiety and depression find that their symptoms have ramped up, while even those who have never had a mood disorder find themselves feeling anxious, easily distracted, and depressed. These symptoms can be even more severe in patients who have been infected with COVID-19, and the study discussed above gives us a clue as to why.
Certainly, there’s some comfort in knowing that you’re not alone if you’re experiencing these feelings in the wake of the pandemic, but it’s also important to know that there is help available if you need it. Depression is diagnosed when symptoms persist for two weeks or more; if you’ve spent the past year struggling with your mental health, now may be the right time to address your needs, whether that means psychotherapy or psychiatric medication.