Had Covid-19? You’re 60% more likely to have mental illness, study finds; researcher says it shows disease isn’t ‘like the flu’

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People who’ve had Covid-19 have a 60 percent higher chance of experiencing mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and thinking of suicide, as well as drug and alcohol abuse and disturbances in sleep and cognition.

The results come from a study by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System. Using anonymous data from the VA, the nation’s largest integrated health-care delivery system, the researchers compared the mental-health outcomes of more than 150,000 patients who had mild or severe Covid-19 cases from March 1, 2020 to January 15, 2021, with the outcomes of two control groups: one of more than 5.6 million patients who did not have Covid-19 during the same time period, the other of more than 5.8 million people who were patients from March 2018 to January 2019, well before the pandemic. The study is published in the BJM (British Medical Journal).

People diagnosed with Covid-19 were 60% more likely to suffer from mental-health problems than those who were not infected, leading to an increased use of prescription medication to treat such problems and increased risks of substance-use disorders including opioids and non-opioids such as alcohol and illicit drugs, the study found.

“People need to know that if they have had Covid-19 and are struggling mentally, they’re not alone, and they should seek help immediately and without shame,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, the study’s lead author. “It’s critical that we recognize this now, diagnose it and address it before the opioid crisis snowballs and we start losing more people to suicide.”

Al-Aly continued, “Our findings suggest a specific link between SARS-Co-V-2 [the novel coronavirus] and mental-health disorders. We’re not certain why this is, but one of the leading hypotheses is that the virus can enter the brain and disturb cellular and neuron pathways.”

To better understand whether the increased risk of mental-health disorders is specific to Covid-19, the researchers also compared the Covid-19 patients with 72,207 flu patients, including 11,924 who were hospitalized, from October 2017 through February 2020. Again, the risk was significantly higher in those who had mild and serious Covid-19 infections.

“My hope is that this dispels the notion that Covid-19 is like the flu,” Al-Aly said. “It’s so much more serious.” He stressed the importance of identifying and treating mental-health disorders in Covid-19 survivors.

“Our goal was to provide a comprehensive analysis that will help improve our understanding of the long-term risk of mental-health disorders in people with Covid-19 and guide their post-infection health care,” added Al-Aly. “Studies on Covid-19 and mental health have been limited by a maximum of six months of follow-up data and by a narrow selection of mental-health outcomes; for example, examining depression and anxiety but not substance-use disorders.”

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