One third of COVID-19 survivors are diagnosed with a mental health issue within 6 months after contracting the virus, according to a new large-scale study.
The research, which analysed over 235,000 patient records mostly from the US, found that 34% of COVID-19 survivors were diagnosed with either a neurological or psychiatric mental health condition.
The most common mental health issue was anxiety disorder, affecting just over 17% of all patients.
Disease severity was also linked to a person's risk of developing a mental health condition: overall incidence rose to 39% for patients who required hospitalisation, 46% if they were admitted to an intensive therapy unit (ITU), and 62% if they developed encephalopathy (a general term describing brain disease, damage or malfunction).
The same pattern could be seen for most individual conditions: incidence of any anxiety disorder rose from 16% in hospitalised patients, to 19% in ITU patients, to 22% in cases of encephalopathy; any stroke from 4% to 7% to 9%; and dementia from 1% to 2% to 5%.
Similar increases could be seen in incidence rates for psychotic disorders, substance abuse disorders, and insomnia.
The study, the largest of its kind to investigate the link between COVID-19 and mental health, also involved a comparison with similar data gathered for cases of the flu.
After matching patients as well as possible in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and underlying health conditions, COVID-19 survivors had a 44% higher risk of developing a mental health issue compared with survivors of the flu.
Based on their findings, the study authors warn of the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare systems, emphasising the importance of mental health monitoring for those affected by the virus.
"COVID-19 was robustly associated with an increased risk of neurological and psychiatric disorders in the 6 months after a diagnosis," state the study authors, "Given the size of the pandemic and the chronicity of many of the diagnoses and their consequences (e.g. dementia, stroke, and intracranial haemorrhage), substantial effects on health and social care systems are likely to occur.
"Our data provide important evidence indicating the scale and nature of services that might be required. The findings also highlight the need for enhanced neurological follow-up of patients who were admitted to ITU or had encephalopathy during their COVID-19 illness."
The study's findings follow in the footsteps of previous research published in November 2020 by the same research group.
At the time investigating outcomes in COVID-19 patients 3 months after a diagnosis, the team found that 18% of patients had developed a psychiatric disorder.
However, one of the limitations for that study was the timeframe from which data was analysed: between January and August.
Study participants were therefore already living through the pandemic, suggesting that there may have already been an elevated sense of anxiety among the studied population.
The team made a similar observation in the latest study too, stating that the relationship between the risk of developing a psychiatric disorder and COVID-19 severity was weaker than for neurological conditions.
"This might indicate that their occurrence reflects, at least partly, the psychological and other implications of a COVID-19 diagnosis rather than being a direct manifestation of the illness," the study authors state.
Also of note is that the people studied were more likely to be severely affected than most, as many people who contract the virus have mild symptoms and therefore do not interact with their healthcare system.
The latest study presents more tangible findings though, having analysed a larger study population and for a longer duration.
To read the full study, click here.
Written by Marco Ricci
Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health