COVID linked to higher risk of anxiety and depression

Man looking depressed

Being infected with COVID-19 may increase your risk of developing a mental illness or neurological condition, after you have recovered from the virus, according to new research.

One in three COVID-19 survivors, in an observational study of more than 230,00 patient records, received a neurological or psychiatric diagnosis within six months of infection, a paper in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry shows.

The size of the study provides compelling data, according to lead author Paul Harrison.

“These are real-world data from a large number of patients. They confirm the high rates of psychiatric diagnoses after COVID-19 and show that serious disorders affecting the nervous system (such as stroke and dementia) occur too. While the latter are much rarer, they are significant, especially in those who had severe COVID-19,” Professor Harrison says.

Anxiety and depression among the most common diagnoses

Researchers in the latest study found the most common diagnoses were anxiety disorders (17 per cent of patients), mood disorders (14 per cent), substance misuse disorders (7 per cent) and insomnia (5 per cent).

The research adds to previous findings that COVID-19 survivors may be at increased risk of mood and anxiety disorders, in the first three months after infection.

Risk significantly higher with COVID than other infections

The risk of neurological and mental health diagnoses after COVID-19 was found to be 44 per cent higher than after infection with influenza and 16 per cent higher than after respiratory tract infection.

The results indicate brain disease and psychiatric disorders are a greater risk after COVID-19 infection than other common infections and point to an urgent need to identify why, so they can be prevented or treated, study co-author Max Taquet says.

University College of London researcher Jonathan Rogers warns the impact of COVID-19 could be with us for many years, as many of the disorders identified in the study tend to be ‘chronic or recurrent’.

Ways to support someone with anxiety or depression

If someone you know suffers from anxiety or depression, or both, there are ways you can help support them:

  • Look for signs or symptoms that something is different in how your loved one usually behaves or feels. This might include, but not be limited to, irritability, withdrawal, a loss of interest in things they used to enjoy, fatigue, or using harmful coping mechanisms such as drinking more alcohol or over-eating
  • Listen to them, if they want to talk. Do this sympathetically and without judgment. Don’t try to ‘fix’ things for them or minimise what they are feeling, just listen
  • Support them in accessing professional help, starting with their GP, when they are ready.
  • Be there. If your loved one doesn’t want to talk yet, just spend time with them and let them know you are there for them
  • Be patient. It takes time to recover and everyone does this at a different rate. The journey is not linear and at times there will be setbacks.

Study limitations

Limitations of the study include it being observational, therefore not able to prove cause and effect; the completeness of the health records is unknown; and mild or asymptomatic COVID cases are unlikely to present for healthcare, so the data likely represent more severe infection. Finally, the severity and course of the neurological and psychiatric disorders is not known.

For more on depression or anxiety you might be interested in: How to support someone with depression and anxiety, Tackling depression: What helps with low mood or Facing anxiety.

First published: Apr 2021

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