There’s still so much we have to learn about the effects of COVID-19, especially long-term health effects and the effects it has on us outside of its “usual” symptoms, like lung damage. Researchers are learning more all the time, and after a study of patients in the U.S., scientists at the University of Oxford have found yet another potential effect of the virus: Mental illness.
Researchers from the University of Oxford and NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre found that nearly 20 percent patients who were diagnosed with COVID-19 were also diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within three months of testing positive for the virus. Some common disorders were anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
What’s even more alarming, though, is that the researchers on this study found that people with a pre-existing mental health disorder were 65 percent more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than someone with no history of mental illness — even taking into account all the other known risk factors, like age, sex, race, and high-risk medical history.
“This finding was unexpected and needs investigation. In the meantime, having a psychiatric disorder should be added to the list of risk factors for Covid-19,” said Dr. Max Taquet, one of the authors of the study.
For their study, the researchers analyzed health records of around 70 million patients from the U.S., including more than 62,000 cases where patients were diagnosed with COVID but did not require an emergency room visit or a hospital stay. They found that 18.1 percent of those patients were diagnosed with a mental illness in the 14 to 90 days after their positive COVID test. For 5.8 percent of the patients, it was their first-ever mental health diagnosis.
In an effort to make sure this trend was actually related to COVID, the researchers compared similar data from patients who were diagnosed with a number of other medical conditions, including other respiratory illnesses, skin infections, gallstones, urinary tract stones, and large-bone fractures. In those groups, the rate of first-time mental illness diagnosis was 2.5 to 3.4 percent, meaning COVID patients appeared to be twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness.
There are a lot of factors that this study doesn’t take into account. For example, this increase in mental illness might be due to the pandemic and its effects on our lives, not necessarily a side effect of COVID. But it shines yet another light on how much we truly don’t know about this illness, and how much we still need to learn to help people get better after they’ve had it.