COVID survivors nearly 40% more likely to suffer depression

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If you have had COVID-19 and experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety you aren’t alone.

People who battled COVID-19 were 39 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those without, according to a new study published Wednesday in the BMJ journal. Additionally, they participants were 35 percent more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety compared to those who did not have COVID-19.

“Some may use our findings to gaslight or dismiss long [COVID] as a psychosomatic condition or explain the myriad manifestations of long [COVID] as the result of mental illness,” said a summary of the study, referring to the “long COVID” condition of persisting symptoms after infection with the virus. “This dismissal is contrary to scientific evidence and is harmful to patients and communities.”

There were 153,848 participants in the study who survived the first 30 days of SARS-CoV-2 infection along with two control groups.

“Even when compared to contemporaneous controls of people who did not have [COVID-19], but were exposed to the same adverse forces of the pandemic – including economic, social, and other stressors – those with [COVID-19] exhibited increased risk of mental health outcomes,” said the study. “This was consistent in analyses versus a historical control group from a pre-pandemic era.”

Risks were evident even for those who had mild infections and did not require hospitalization, said the study. Other research has shown that long COVID can affect nearly every organ system in the body.

According to Dr. Paul Harrison – a professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the study but authored a study last year on the risks of neurological and psychiatric diagnoses in patients in the 6 months following a COVID-19 diagnosis – agrees that there appear to be an excess of mental health diagnoses in the months after COVID-19 infection.

“It strengthens the case that there is something about COVID that is leaving people at greater risk of common mental health conditions,” he said, according to The New York Times.

Apart from depression and anxiety, the BMJ study tracked stress and adjustment disorders as well as substance abuse disorders. COVID-19 infection was associated with an increased risk experiencing increased rates of mental health outcomes including substance use disorders such as opioid addiction, neurocognitive decline, and sleep problems.

“The increased risk of opioid use is of particular concern, especially considering the high rates of opioid use disorders pre-pandemic,” said researchers.

Since these findings could have “far-reaching consequences,” they believe that mental health outcomes for COVID-19 should receive more attention.

“The body of evidence on long [COVID] – from our work and others – suggests the need to reframe our thinking about SARS-CoV-2,” said the study. “It is not only a respiratory virus; it is a systemic virus that may provoke damage and clinical consequences in nearly every organ system – including mental health disorders and neurocognitive decline.”

However, Dr. Harrison noted that a COVID-19 diagnosis does not suggest that an individual will develop mental health symptoms.

“It’s not an epidemic of anxiety and depression, fortunately,” he said. “But it’s not trivial.”

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