This pandemic has thrown the entire world for a loop with its broad base of symptoms and unpredictable illness course. The more experts learn about it, the more incentive we all have to avoid catching it. But now we have people who have been struggling with COVID for many months, the so-called "long haulers" and as we work to help these people, we're learning a lot. Recent studies have uncovered a particularly disturbing trend: COVID-19 infections appear to be triggering mental health issues in some people who have never previously experienced them. This trend is worrying and may include exacerbating an already troubling mental health crisis.
Researchers have known for some time now that COVID-19 can cause neurological symptoms in some sufferers. Doctors have documented headaches, problems with a sense of smell, meningitis, seizures, and neuromuscular disorders. Patients with neurological manifestations commonly complain of dizziness, difficulty concentrating, movement issues and pain in the muscles and/or nerves.
They may also suffer psychiatric symptoms. While sick, some patients have had delusional episodes severe enough to warrant antipsychotic and benzodiazepine therapy. And some patients aren’t immediately out of the woods even after they’ve recovered.
One study found 18.1% of all COVID-19 survivors, that’s nearly one in five patients, develop new psychiatric symptoms within 3 months following their recovery. The most common issues reported have been anxiety, depression, insomnia and, among older adults, dementia. Stress from the pandemic could be causing some mental health issues, but experts believe the virus itself is responsible for much of the problem.
COVID-19 isn’t unique in its ability to disrupt neurological functioning. Many other viruses have had serious effects on sufferers’ mental health and this provides a model for further research. Previous research on SARS and MERS, both close relatives of the virus that causes COVID-19, has shown coronaviruses are capable of triggering mental health disorders. Anxiety, depression and PTSD are reportedly common among SARS and MERS survivors.
Experts are still trying to understand the connection, but a haywire immune response could be one factor. Research into viral causes of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in children has shown direct evidence of autoimmune involvement. So if COVID-19 causes autoimmune issues, some patients may need additional types of supportive treatment to avoid suffering long-term effects. Studies on immune-based therapies for viral-triggered OCD have shown a lot of promise and may be worth examining in COVID-19 as well.
This pandemic could have some nasty surprises in store for countless patients—some even long after they think they’ve recovered. If the trends continue, we could be looking at a massive wave of well-adjusted people suddenly suffering from mental illnesses, long-term lung involvement, or other challenges. Organizations like the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) have resources for those in need, but they too could become overwhelmed by the needs many are facing in a post-COVID-19 world. Let's all work together to reduce everyone’s risks by practicing good hand hygiene, socially distancing and wearing a mask in public areas.
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