Those who have had COVID-19 are at increased risk of mental health problems.
A study published in The BMJ found that people who survived COVID-19 had a higher chance of developing problems like anxiety, suicide ideation, depression, opioid use disorder, sleep difficulties and substance abuse.
“We think the aftereffects of the pandemic will reverberate with us for decades. Millions and millions of people will have some mental health issue as a result of COVID and these patients need to be identified, diagnosed, and cared for,” Ziyad Al-Aly, senior author of the study and Chief of Research and Development at the VA Saint Louis Health Care System told Theravive.
“Governments and health systems should prepare for the aftermath of this devastating pandemic. The long-term consequences of COVID are significant and require a coordinated response. I worry that we are not taking this seriously.”
To undertake their study into the mental health impacts of COVID-19, the researchers examined the de-identified medical records of a large data base from the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Data from 153,848 people who had tested positive for the virus between March 1 2020 and January 15 2021 and survived was examined.
They used statistical modelling to compare the mental health outcomes of those who had been infected with COVID-19 with groups who had not been infected.
They found that people who had been infected with COVID-19 were 60% more likely to experience mental health problems than those who had not been infected.
Those infected with COVID-19 were 35% more likely to experience anxiety disorders and 40% were more likely to experience either depressions or stress related disorders.
People who had been infected also had a 55% increased use of antidepressants compared with their non-infected peers.
“Mental health is health, and it is driven by the biology of COVID and its effects on the brain. Arguably, all of us had some sort of mental health distress in this pandemic, so it has been hard to determine who is having the most risk. Clearly, our report shows that people with COVID had it much much worse,” Al-Aly said.
The researchers also found that those who had been infected with COVID-19 were 34% more likely to develop an opioid use disorder. They were 20% more likely to develop a substance use disorder.
Those infected were also 46% more likely than their non-infected peers to have thoughts of suicide.
More than 403 million people around the world have been infected with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. In the US, more than 77 million people have been infected.
For perspective, Al-Aly says that COVID-19 has likely caused more than 14.8 million new cases of mental health disorders around the world, with 2.8 million new cases being in the US alone.
He says that it’s important to remember that the study does account for those who suffer in silence due to lack of resources or support, or the stigma associated with mental health struggles.
He says it is likely millions more people are impacted by the mental health impact of COVID-19 than the data shows.
Al-Aly says the study highlights how critical it is that the mental health impacts of COVID-19 should be addressed immediately, before suicide rates and rates of opioid misuse increase any further.
“I don’t think health system leaders have grasped the enormity of this. There is so much focus on the here and now, on the acute effects of COVID (case counts, hospitalization, death), but there is very little discussion about the after-effects, the long-term ramifications, and how to best prepare for these. I worry that we got caught unprepared for the COVID pandemic, we will be caught (again) unprepared for the aftermath,” he said.
“People who are suffering should know that they are not alone. There are millions of other people with shared experience. They should not hesitate to seek help, get diagnosed and get treated.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.