Over the course of the pandemic, researchers have sought to understand the lingering effects of coronavirus on survivors’ mental health. Now, new research has surfaced more details on these effects, as well as their frequency. A study published in The Lancet Psychiatry on Tuesday found that around 1 in 3 COVID-19 survivors were diagnosed with mental health or neurological conditions within six months of infection, with anxiety being the most common, CNN reports.
To conduct the study — purportedly the largest of its kind, per a EurekAlert press release — University of Oxford researchers combed through the electronic health records of more than 236,000 COVID-19 patients, who were primarily from the U.S. Seventeen percent were diagnosed with anxiety and 14% with mood disorders within six months of infection, making them the most common diagnoses. According to Reuters, the occurrence of anxiety and mood disorders didn’t seem to be correlated with the severity of their COVID-19 infection.
Neurological diagnoses were rarer. About 2% of the patients had suffered a stroke, for instance, and less than 1% were left with dementia after they'd recovered from COVID-19, EurekAlert noted. These conditions tended to appear more often in patients who’d suffered from serious illness, such as those admitted to the ICU.
According to EurekAlert, the mental health and neurological diagnoses occurred more often in COVID-19 survivors than in people who’d recovered from respiratory infections during the same window of time, suggesting that they were connected specifically to COVID-19.
The finding that 1 in 3 COVID-19 survivors in the study received a mental health or neurological diagnosis within six months of their infection might seem alarming. But it’s less so when we consider that anxiety was the most common diagnosis. Reuters notes that the researchers aren’t sure how COVID-19 is connected to anxiety or other mental health diagnoses, but they don’t seem that unexpected from an isolating disease we still don’t entirely comprehend.
The Lancet Psychiatry results are consistent with other studies and anecdotal reports on the mental health effects of COVID-19. While scientists are still unraveling the connection between COVID-19 and mental health, they’ve proposed a few hypotheses. One group of researchers suggests that the inflammation triggered by the virus may play a role. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist and director of the Stanford Center on Stress and Health, previously told Mic that the physical symptoms of COVID-19 cause anxiety, which can then worsen those physical symptoms, and so on, creating an endless feedback loop.
The findings from the new Lancet Psychiatry study can help healthcare systems plan how to address the psychological needs of COVID-19 survivors, CNN reports. Anxiety and mood disorders in the wake of COVID-19 may seem unsurprising, but that doesn’t make the need to provide support for them any less pressing.