COVID-19 is an infectious disease that causes respiratory illness, but its effects can go way beyond that. A large study from Oxford University in the UK found that survivors are at a higher risk of developing mental illness, such as anxiety and depression. They are also more likely to develop dementia.
The researchers analyzed electronic health records of 69 million people in the US, including more than 62,000 people who had COVID-19. They found that 20% of those infected with the coronavirus were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within 90 days—about twice as likely as for other groups of patients with other illnesses in the same time frame.
"People have been worried that COVID-19 survivors will be at greater risk of mental health problems, and our findings... show this to be likely," said Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at Oxford University. He urged doctors and scientists around the world to investigate the causes and identify new treatments for post-COVID-19 mental illness.
While the findings add to a growing body of evidence that COVID-19 can have an impact on mental health as well as physical health, it's not known why the virus appears to increase the risk of psychiatric illness—and there could be several potential reasons, says psychiatrist Margaret Seide, MD.
"It is well known that after survival of a traumatic event there may be an increase of conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, and depression," Dr. Seide, who is based in New York City, tells Health. "This is precisely what is observed in the post-COVID-19 period."
Although most people who will be infected with the coronavirus will survive, the media coverage emphasizes the death rate—and rightly so, as it's an important measure to track. But this means COVID-19 patients are well aware of the fact that death is a very real possibility.
"Confronting the possibility of not surviving a condition is terrifying," explains Dr. Seide. "Most of us have the luxury of not thinking about our mortality very often. It makes sense that such an event would be triggering for a mental health condition—particularly for those who had a difficult course of the illness which included hospitalization or periods of respiratory distress."