Written by: Stephanie Collier, MD, MPH, contributor
Editor’s note: As information about COVID-19 continues to evolve, so does advice about protective measures. please check CDC website For current information or speak with your doctor. Recommendations may vary depending on your community, whether you have an underlying disease, and whether you’ve been vaccinated.
Doctors told you that the COVID-19 infection cleared up months ago. However, even though you are no longer struggling to breathe, and your oxygen levels are back to normal, something is not right. In addition to constant headaches, you find yourself struggling with seemingly easy tasks. Your tiredness makes moving from bed to kitchen feel like an accomplishment. But what bothers you the most is the feeling of dread, and nervousness so intense that you can feel your heart beating. Continuous fears now prevent you from sleeping at night.
What are the effects of COVID-19 on mental health?
We are still learning about the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the brain. Data from Wuhan suggests that the virus may invade the brain, with more than a third of infected patients showing neurological symptoms. In addition to brain infection, we know that the pandemic has worsened mental health outcomes due to the psychological toll of isolation, loneliness, unemployment, financial stress, and loss of loved ones. Prescriptions for antidepressants are up, intimate partner violence is on the rise, and suicidal thoughts are on the rise, especially in young adults.
Does COVID-19 infection increase the risk of mental disorders?
Until recently, the mental health outcomes of COVID-19 infection were unknown. A new study of electronic health records of 69 million people finds that COVID-19 infection increases the risk of developing a mental disorder, dementia or insomnia. Furthermore, people with psychiatric disorders were 65% more likely to develop COVID-19, which may be related to behavioral factors, lifestyle factors (such as smoking), inflammation, or psychiatric medications. This is the first large study to show that infection with COVID-19 actually increases the risk of developing mental disorders.
The long-term mental health effects of COVID-19 infection remain to be seen. After the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, offspring of mothers infected during pregnancy were found to have higher rates of schizophrenia. It is thought that infection with the virus during pregnancy may be a risk factor for the development of mental illness related to the body’s immune response. If COVID-19 infection slightly increases the risk of mental illness in the offspring, this could have a significant impact at the population level, given the rising numbers of infections worldwide.
Do you have a mental disorder as a result of COVID-19?
You may feel overwhelmed, stressed or sad because of the effects of COVID-19 on your body or because of life circumstances. However, even if a test result is positive for depression or anxiety during your doctor’s visit, remember that screening tools are not diagnostic. People with physical symptoms of COVID-19 infection often test positive for depression, as symptoms of infection often overlap with symptoms of depression. For example, poor sleep, poor concentration, and decreased appetite may be due to a medical illness rather than depression.
In order for your doctor to make an accurate diagnosis, you may need to wait for a period of time to monitor the development of symptoms. Although antidepressants are often prescribed for mood and anxiety disorders, keep in mind that mild to moderate symptoms often go away on their own when life conditions improve. If this is your first bout of depression or your first experience with anxiety, you may not need professional treatment if your symptoms are mild. If you start taking a medication, be sure to review your treatment regularly with your doctor and make changes as needed.
What steps can you take to reduce the mental health consequences of COVID-19 infection?
- Take the vaccine. This is especially important for people with mental disorders, which are independent risk factors for COVID-19 infection.
- Continue to wear a mask and keep physical distance. However, it aims to maintain social ties.
- Take advantage of the resources. Treatments, workbooks, and online mobile apps (COVID coach, CBT-I coach) can provide benefits without risking exposure during treatment.
- Defend others. Long-distance carriers of COVID-19 may not be in a position to advocate for workplace adjustments, life insurance or mental health coverage, especially if they are experiencing fatigue and brain fog.
- Do physical activity. In addition to being as effective as medications for mood and anxiety, physical activity also helps improve memory and heart health.
- Take advantage of a relaxing ritual. When the world seems out of control, try creating a ritual. Controlling just one part of your day can help you feel less distressed.
- Use caution with sleep aids and medications as needed. Short-term use can quickly become long-term use, resulting in drug tolerance and dependence and rebound anxiety.
- Cut back on alcohol and cannabis use. Prolonged stress from caring for close patients, unemployment, increased time at home, and stresses related to relationships can all lead to an increase in problematic drug use.
- Be aware of caffeine. If post-COVID fatigue is severe, discuss other options with your doctor, as excess caffeine can exacerbate anxiety and sleep problems.
- Check in and ask how you can help your loved ones, friends, colleagues and neighbours. It is often much easier to refuse help than to ask for help. If someone is particularly experiencing thoughts of suicide, a simple call or a kind gesture can save their life. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) is available to anyone in severe distress.
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