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Even Mild COVID-19 Impacts Mental Health, Research Reveals

A person with long hair wipes their nose after sneezing while experiencing mild COVID-19 symptoms.

Key Takeaways

  • Following mild cases of COVID-19, a study of 895 participants found clinically significant reports of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.
  • Most of the COVID-19 patients had been considered mild cases and had to be in isolation at home for extended periods of time.

A recently published journal article in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry found that following mild cases of COVID-19, 26.2% of people studied reported depressive issues, while 22.4% reported anxiety concerns, and 17.3% reported post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Especially as the variants of COVID-19 continue to pose a serious risk across the globe, the largest study to date on the clinically significant mental health impacts of surviving mild cases of COVID-19 must be taken seriously.

Given that this study only looked at mild cases and found clinically significant levels of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress symptoms, additional research into other experiences of COVID-19 may provide further insights into its impacts on mental health.

Understanding the Research

For this prospective cohort study, participants in São Caetano do Sul, Brazil who tested positive for COVID-19 based on nasopharyngeal swabs and considered to be mild cases, were then additionally screened for mental health challenges on an average of 56.6 days following intake. They were asked to self-report depressive, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Researchers found that patients had a mean of 4.2 COVID-19 symptoms, and every one-symptom increase increased the likelihood that a clinically significant level of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress was present by approximately 6%, 7%, and 9%, respectively.

While this study is the largest to assess mental health symptoms in patients following mild cases of COVID-19, and aligns with similar research that has been completed on home-quarantined patients in China, the lack of measures at different timepoints should be noted as a limitation.

Navigating the Mental Health Impacts

Deidra Thompson, DNP, FNP-C, PMHNP-BC, says, "Being diagnosed with an illness that has claimed the lives of millions and impacted even more lives can be stressful. There is anxiety associated with the fact that there still much to be discovered about the disease and treatment."

Thompson continues, "The required isolation and quarantine associated with COVID-19 can also trigger symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress even if the individual does not have a history of mental illness."

Deidra Thompson, DNP, FNP-C, PMHNP-BC

People were afraid of food and supply shortages. School closures, business closures, and the loss of socializing with friends and family members led to mental strain, financial strain, anxiety, and depressive symptoms.

— Deidra Thompson, DNP, FNP-C, PMHNP-BC

Thompson cautions that isolation and social distancing, even in those who do not have COVID-19 symptoms, can increase the risk of and exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. The initial shock of a pandemic being declared was difficult to hear, and then it was heart-wrenching to see death tolls rise, along with a fear of the unknown and of contracting a virus that we did not know much about.

The Impacts of Collective Trauma

Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, says, "The takeaway readers should have is that if they had COVID-19 and feel they 'are not the same' and are experiencing symptoms such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, they are not imagining this and it’s very real.

"It stands to reason," Hafeez says, "that when a person suffers through a potentially life-threatening novel virus, and they are isolated, that, depending on the person, psychiatric symptoms could result. The symptoms may not occur immediately after recovery. There could be a delayed onset."

Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

We need to get rid of the shame and stigma attached to getting help. The pandemic upended some lives more than others. If you feel you are suffering, reach out to a mental health expert and seek help. 

— Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

Hafeez describes it as imperative for these research findings to be widely circulated so that the millions of individuals who survived COVID-19 with mild symptoms can understand why they might not be “the same person” that they were.

Hafeez cautions that lack of access to this information can send people on a “wild goose chase” to figure out what’s “wrong” when the answer lies in their current mental health state due to surviving COVID-19.

What This Means For You

As indicated by this research, the mental health impacts of contracting mild cases of COVID-19 need to be taken seriously. Especially since such challenges can arise following COVID-19 for those who did not have a pre-existing mental health diagnosis, stigma needs to continue to be challenged so that those impacted can access the support they need.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Ismael F, Bizario J, Battagin T et al. Post-infection depressive, anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms: A prospective cohort study in patients with mild COVID-19Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2021;111:110341. doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2021.110341