One out of three COVID-19 survivors may develop a severe mental health or psychiatric condition within six month of their initial diagnosis, according to new research from Oxford University. Documented conditions include anxiety and depression, plus more severe disorders such as stroke and dementia.
“These aren't simply patients making complaints. These are clearly difficulties that the physicians and other health care professionals feel merited diagnosis,“ says Paul Harrison, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor of psychiatry at Oxford University. “[The study] certainly supports the view that unfortunately, for some patients, COVID is not a quick illness. It's an illness that leaves one with a number of sequelae.”
Harrison says the development of anxiety and depression were equal among patients diagnosed with mild and severe coronavirus. Meanwhile more serious neurologic problems, such as dementia and stroke, were more common in older patients and those with pre-existing health conditions and other physical comorbidities.
“That suggests that maybe those kinds of complications are in some way related to the virus in the brain or the way our bodies are fighting the virus. Whereas the mental health diagnoses are more to do [with] the kind of psychological and social circumstances within which the COVID pandemic is occurring.”
He says it’s still unclear exactly how COVID-19 impacts the brain, but he points out that there is proof the virus does enter the brain: when a patient loses their sense of smell. He theorizes that could be due to inflammation in the brain.
“An alternative or additional mechanism to explain some of these findings is that when our bodies fight COVID, we produce quite a strong inflammatory response in patients,” Harrison says. “Maybe some of these neurologic consequences are to do with blood clots and other inflammatory effects in the brain, rather than necessarily a direct effect of the virus on nerve cells.”