Scientists link ‘severe’ Covid-19 to long-term mental health problems

New research suggests ‘mental health effects aren’t equal for all Covid-19 patients’, say scientists

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Tuesday 15 March 2022 11:48 GMT
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People who suffer from severe Covid-19 symptoms are more likely to have long-term mental health problems, a new study suggests.

Higher rates of depression and anxiety have been found in people who were “bedridden” with Covid-19 for more than seven days last year, according to a study published in The Lancet.

Scientists, drawing on data from 247,249 people across the UK, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, found that people with coronavirus who were not admitted to hospital were more likely to experience symptoms of depression up to 16 months after diagnosis, compared to those never infected.

However, over 16 months, patients who were bedridden for seven days or more were between 50 and 60 per cent more likely to experience higher levels of depression and anxiety compared to people never infected during the study period, the researchers found.

Overall, people diagnosed with Covid-19 had a higher prevalence of depression and poorer sleep quality compared with individuals who were never diagnosed – 20 per cent of those in the former group experienced symptoms of depression, vs 11 per cent in the latter group.

Researchers suggested patients who spent longer in bed or had higher depression or anxiety rates could be suffering from ill health due to a combination of worrying about long-term health effects and Covid symptoms persisting.

Patients with severe Covid often experience inflammation, which has previously been linked to chronic mental illness, particularly depression.

The researchers said most studies had only examined adverse mental health effects for up to six months after a Covid-19 diagnosis, and much less is known about the long-term mental health effects beyond this point.

To study long-term mental health effects on patients, the researchers looked at the prevalence of depression, anxiety, Covid-related distress, and poor sleep quality.

Of the roughly quarter of a million people in the study, 4 per cent were diagnosed with Covid-19 between February 2020 and August 2021.

Study author Professor Unnur Anna Valdimarsdottir, of the University of Iceland, said: “Our research is among the first to explore mental health symptoms after a serious Covid-19 illness in the general population up to 16 months after diagnosis.

“It suggests that mental health effects aren’t equal for all Covid-19 patients, and that time spent bedridden is a key factor in determining the severity of the impacts on mental health.

“As we enter the third year of the pandemic, increased clinical vigilance of adverse mental health among the proportion of patients with a severe acute disease of Covid-19 and follow-up studies beyond the first year after infections are critical to ensure timely access to care.”

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