COVID-19 can take a heavy toll on the body, but new research shows that patients are also 60% more likely to suffer lingering mental and emotional woes in the year following their infection.
These problems included anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, opioid use disorder, illicit drug and alcohol use disorders, sleep disturbances, and problems thinking and concentrating.
“If after COVID-19 people are suffering from sleep problems or depression or anxiety, you’re not alone. We see thousands of people like you. Definitely seek help,” lead researcher Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly says. He is a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System.
Al-Aly believes these problems need to be taken seriously.
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Is another epidemic on the horizon?
“I want us to pay more attention to things like that so they don’t balloon or become much larger crises down the road,” he shares. “We see an increased risk of opioid use. We see an increased risk of suicidal ideation, we see depression, we see anxiety, and to me, it’s almost like a perfect storm for another opioid epidemic and another suicide epidemic.”
Although it’s not clear how the virus affects the brain, Al-Aly believes the damage is done as COVID-19 enters brain cells.
“The virus can actually enter the brain and cause an array of different problems, including disruption of neuron connections, the elevation of some inflammatory markers, disruption of signaling, and changes in the architecture of the brain, which may also explain the brain fog or neurocognitive [thinking] decline,” he explains.
Doctors need to be on the lookout for these problems among patients who have recovered from COVID-19, Al-Aly notes.
“Physicians really need to understand that COVID-19 is a risk factor for these problems. So definitely ask about mental health, ask about sleep, ask about pain,” he adds. “Most importantly, diagnose these conditions early and address them before they become much, much worse crises down the road.”
What the study shows
For the study, Al-Aly and his colleagues used a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs database to collect information on nearly 154,000 adults who had COVID-19 from March 1, 2020, through Jan. 15, 2021.
The researchers used these data to compare mental health outcomes with nearly 6 million people who