Study Suggests Covid-19 Increases Mental Health Risks for Survivors

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study suggests that Covid-19 infection is linked to an increase in mental health risks.
  • While there are key limitations to the study, it's crucial to address mental health challenges for survivors of Covid-19.

It's no secret that the pandemic has resulted in a dramatic decline in the country's collective mental health. There's no shortage of research on or coverage of the topic, and it's something we can observe in our own lives.

But a new study suggests that for people who have had Covid-19, there's an even greater risk for mental health challenges in the future.

The Research

Using data from the Veterans Health Administration, researchers were able to analyze outcomes experienced by more than 153,000 individuals that had survived at least 30 days after testing positive for Covid-19.

According to the data, researchers observed a 60% increase in risk of new mental health diagnoses or new drug prescription related to mental health in individuals who survived the first 30 days of Covid-19 infection compared to those who avoided infection.

Noël Hunter, PsyD

Doctors are quick to give drugs when someone is upset and struggling. This can in itself lead to neurological changes, dependency and long-term mental health problems separate from the initiating problem

— Noël Hunter, PsyD

The findings suggest a link between Covid-19 infection and heightened risk of developing anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and substance use disorders. Researchers also found that, after infection, individuals had an 80% higher risk for neurocognitive decline.

Study author Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, chief of research and education at VA Saint Louis Health Care System and clinical epidemiologist at Washington University in Saint Louis, says that while the vast majority of us experienced stress during the pandemic due to fear, uncertainty and a slew of changes, those feelings of stress and anxiety are experienced more severely by people that actually contract the virus.

Addressing the Limitations

Psychologist Noël Hunter, PsyD, director of MindClear Integrative Psychotherapy, makes the important distinction that correlation does not necessarily equal causation here.

The pandemic is a novel experience for both doctors and patients, and developing feelings of anxiety and depression in the face of an overwhelming experience is a normal reaction, she says. We still don't have all the answers when it comes to the long-term effects of Covid-19.

Other studies have shown that Covid-19 can affect mental health and neurological function, but it's also important to note that the sample of this particular study consisted solely of veterans, a population that already tends to experience higher risk of mental health challenges and substance use disorders.

And while medication can be helpful in many cases, it can be a tricky metric in assesing mental health risk. While researchers noted an 86% uptick in mental health related drug prescriptions among survivors of Covid-19, the use of prescription mental health medications has steadily been on the rise in the United States in general, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Doctors are quick to give drugs when someone is upset and struggling," Hunter says. "This can in itself lead to neurological changes, dependency and long-term mental health problems separate from the initiating problem."

Founder of Healing Journey Counseling Center, Myisha Jackson, LPC, has been treating clients dealing with anxiety and depression throughout the pandemic and feels that forced isolation could be the real contributor to mental health issues. Even her patients that consider themselves introverts have shown an increase in anxiety and depression after having to isolate. And individuals that tested positive for Covid-19 struggled with the diagnosis.

"Most of those were people that were so busy with their day to day life and struggled with making time for themselves, the quarantine forced them to shut down distractions," Jackson says. "They spent a lot of time alone, which caused them to be more aware of their thoughts. The things they have suppressed or avoided became the forefront."

Ziyad Al-Aly, MD

If we don't do a good job of addressing this now, it will be another crisis down the road.

— Ziyad Al-Aly, MD

However, at least one positive to come from the pandemic concerning mental health is that more conversations are being had about it. Not only is it a topic covered in the media, but more people are willing to talk about their feelings as they're able to identify them and relate to others going through similar challenges.

"People are more informed now," Jackson says. "Mental health is no longer a bad or embarrassing thing to some people."

And doctors can play a crucial role in continuing to raise awareness of mental health challenges related to Covid-19. Al-Aly hopes the study's findings will help physicians realize that they must screen Covid-19 patients for mental health issues, to push even the shyest patients to provide insight on their emotions, energy levels and sleep patterns in the hopes of better understanding the individual's post-Covid experience.

“If we don't do a good job of addressing this now, it will be another crisis down the road," Al-Aly says.

What This Means For You

If you're struggling with heightened depression, anxiety or substance use after having Covid-19, you're not alone. And it's not something you need to go through by yourself. Seeking support and professional help early on can prevent a bigger issue down the line.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Xiong J, Lipsitz O, Nasri F, et al. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: A systematic reviewJ Affect Disord. 2020;277:55-64. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2020.08.001

  2. Xie Y, Xu E, Al-Aly Z. Risks of mental health outcomes in people with covid-19: Cohort studyBMJ. 2022:e068993. doi:10.1136/bmj-2021-068993

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental Health Care - Household Pulse Survey.