New research has shed more light on the long-lasting impact that severe COVID-19 illness can have on our mental health, with experts calling on greater attention to the psychological side of treatment for recovering patients.
The peer-reviewed study published in the Lancet medical journal on Monday found that people who tested positive for COVID-19 and were bedridden for at least seven days due to acute illness experienced higher levels of depression and anxiety lasting up to 16 months.
In contrast, people with mild COVID-19 infection who did not require bedrest were at a lower risk of adverse mental health outcomes.
For most patients, the symptoms of depression and anxiety subsided within two months, the study showed.
Researchers looked at data from February 2020 to August 2021, including nearly 250,000 people from six European countries, in what is one of the more comprehensive analyses of COVID-19’s long-term impact on mental health.
“There’s something a little different about COVID versus other infections like the seasonal flu that’s leaving people especially susceptible to post-COVID-19 depressive syndromes or mood disorders,” said Dr. Roger McIntyre, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto.
The “cytokine storm” phenomenon, when the body’s immune response overreacts to an infectious agent, could be a contributing factor, said McIntyre. The severity of infection that can lead to death is also “exceedingly stressful” for people, he added.
“I think there’s genuine concerns people have about the long-term consequences of COVID, and that could be the additional stressor for them,” McIntyre said.
Dr. Lakshmi Yatham, head of the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, said in general, severe physical illnesses increase the risk of mental disorder symptoms and COVID-19 is no different.
Increased inflammation in the body — caused by COVID-19 and associated with several psychiatric illnesses, such as depression and anxiety — is likely playing a role, he told Global News.
A UK study published in the Nature scientific journal last week showed that people infected with COVID-19 experienced greater reduction in their brain volumes and also showed larger cognitive decline.
Yatham said COVID-19 can bind to specific receptors in the brain, and while not yet established, it’s possible that this can cause some functional changes in the brain and increase the risk of psychiatric symptoms.
Mental health crisis
More than two years into the pandemic, a growing body of research and surveys has documented the mental toll COVID-19 has taken on people across the world.
Lockdowns, restrictions, isolation and uncertainty around when the pandemic would end have exacerbated the problem.
In January 2022, the general psychological health of Canadians hit its lowest point since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, according to LifeWork’s Mental Health Index report.
An Ipsos poll done exclusively for Global News in May 2021 found that 50 per cent of Canadians surveyed were at “high risk” — meaning they’ve experienced some combination of debilitating stress, hopeless depression and consideration of suicide or self-harm.
As more data emerges and given the experience of the past two years, experts are concerned about the long-term damage of COVID-19 on people’s mental well-being.
“I think this is going to require public health attention and really prioritization of our mental health services around the world,” he added.
Yatham agrees, saying more research is needed to better understand the longer-term impact of COVID-19 on our mental health.
He said countries need to pay greater attention to addressing the problem by improving access to care and counselling as well as allocating more resources.
“I think over the next two, three, four years, we will continue to see the impact the pandemic has had on mental health,” he warned.
“So, I think the governments need to take a close look at the resources and the mental health systems adequately to deal with the impact that we are seeing of the COVID-19 pandemic.”