Can having COVID-19 be a risk factor for developing a new mental health disorder? It’s no secret that living through a pandemic has been incredibly stressful for a lot of people. But is the COVID-19 virus itself causing mental health disorders in diagnosed patients? According to a recent study published in the Lancet Journal of Psychiatry, possibly so.
The study found that between 14 and 90 days after a COVID-19 diagnosis, around 5.8% of recovered patients went to a health care provider and were then diagnosed with a new mental health disorder. The researchers compared this number with new mental health disorder diagnoses following a variety of other illnesses, like the flu, respiratory tract infections, or skin infections. However, they found that COVID-19 was still higher. In comparison, only 2.5% to 3.4% of patients developed a mental health disorder after recovering from other various illnesses. While the numbers may seem close, statistically speaking, that is quite a big difference. Many more individuals developed a new mental health disorder following a COVID-19 infection than any other illness. The majority of the disorders diagnosed were anxiety disorders followed by mood disorders, such as depression.
Alex Podowski, LPC, an intensive outpatient program therapist at Texas Health Behavioral Health Center in Uptown, thinks the exploration of this topic is fantastic.
“It’s great that they are studying COVID-19 mental health outcomes so early on,” Podowski says. “Usually, mental health impacts are such an afterthought. Doctors can now utilize this study early in follow-up care — checking on depression, stress, and anxiety upon recovering from COVID-19. This gives the general population a greater chance to get ahead of the potential mental health concerns that can come out of a COVID-19 infection.”
Another interesting finding from the study was that having a previously diagnosed mental health disorder seemed to be a risk factor for susceptibility to COVID-19. We don’t typically think that having something like depression or anxiety would cause us to be more likely to get sick, but Podowski says there are a few reasons why that might happen.
“Sometimes with a mental health diagnosis, the level of stress the body is put under is far greater than someone without a diagnosis,” she notes. “There is a higher level of susceptibility to getting sick when our stress is at an unmanageable level — our immune system can become more compromised.”
Podowski mentions that the amount of exposure to the COVID-19 virus could be another reason why a previous mental health disorder diagnosis might increase susceptibility to the virus.
“If you are a frontline worker and have [a high-stress job], there is a much higher likelihood you will become infected with COVID-19 compared to a counterpart who is working from home and can hunker down to reduce exposure,” she explains.
What We Already Know About COVID-19 And Mental Health
Stephen Hurlbut, M.D., a neurologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health HEB and at Neurology Specialists of North Texas, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, mentions that many patients are experiencing mental health problems after contracting COVID-19, particularly in “long-haulers”. Long-haulers are those individuals who suffer from symptoms for much longer than the average infection usually lasts.
“Patients who have been dealing with symptoms for several months are more prone to becoming discouraged and depressed,” Hurlbut states. “They may have anxiety about the financial complications of a lingering illness or about the fear of not recovering.”
The stress, uncertainty, and isolation that comes with living through a pandemic is enough to make anyone anxious or depressed. So, it makes sense that COVID-19 is causing mental health problems in many individuals. But whether these mental health disorders are the result of the virus itself or just the mental toll that having an infection can take, Podowski says it’s still too early to tell, though she believes it may be a combination of both.
“Throughout my time in the behavioral health field, I have seen that most diagnoses are a combination of factors — very rarely is it one trigger and one trigger only,” she remarks. “But COVID-19 is still new to us and the reality is that we will not know the full effects of the virus [for quite a while].”
When to Take Action
Anxiety can manifest in many different ways. Some people experience racing or unwanted thoughts, excessive worry, or irritability. Depression also has various symptoms, such as a loss of interest in activities, hopelessness or sadness, and sleep problems.
It’s worth noting that, following a COVID-19 infection, mental health disorders can happen. We have been dealing with this situation for over a year now, and anxiety or depression might be something that many people are experiencing for the first time.
“If you are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety after COVID-19, just know that it’s normal. It’s okay. You are not alone,” Hurlbut reassures us. He states that it can be scary to have those feelings, especially if it’s something you have never experienced before.
“No one alive today has ever lived through something like this, so it’s fair to think you may need to process it and talk with someone,” Podowski says. “A COVID-19 infection is a lot to process already, [not to mention] the isolation and social toll we are taking daily.”
If your mental health starts to interfere with your quality of life, it’s time to ask for help.
What to Do If Your Mental Health Is Suffering Post-COVID-19
The good news is, you do not have to struggle alone.
Hurlbut recommends talking to your doctor as a good place to start.
“Let them know how you feel. They won’t immediately stick you on a pill,” he states. “They will listen to you and decide what sort of treatment is necessary.” Sometimes, just talking about it is enough to start feeling better.
“If you feel as though your mental health has declined throughout the pandemic, whether you have or have not had COVID-19, it can be helpful to seek out the help of a therapist,” Podowski agrees. She also mentions that the earlier you seek treatment, the easier it will be to manage.
According to Podowski, a lot of mental health services are still virtual, which makes access to care much easier. She also advocates for taking advantage of Texas Health’s free assessment tool, a service where you can talk with a licensed therapist about what sort of care might be best for you.
If you are starting to feel burnout, high levels of stress or see dysfunction in your day-to-day, Texas Health Behavioral Health resources are offered at 18 locations throughout North Texas. For additional information or to find resources, call (682) 626-8719.