Have mental illness? You’re more prone to get Covid-19: Here’s how


It has been almost a year that we are living with the novel coronavirus in our new normal lives. We have learned and unlearned so many things and the process is still on. As months passed under lockdown and lakhs and lakhs of people getting infected, we realised that Covid-19 pandemic and mental health issues are deeply connected. People across the world are grappling with various mental health disorders owing to the pandemic’s outbreak, lockdown, its consequences among other related issues. In this regard, the latest study of the University of Oxford offers very interesting insights. And in this article, we will talk about that study and its findings.

Have mental illness? You’re more prone to get Covid-19: Here’s how

What is the new study on Covid-19 and mental health connection?

Having coronavirus may increase the risk of adverse mental health consequences in people and having a psychiatric disorder could raise the chances of getting Covid-19, according to researchers who looked at the medical records of 69 million people in the US, of which over 62,000 had the disease. They found that nearly one in five people who have had Covid-19 are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression, or insomnia within three months of testing positive for the virus. The analysis also reveals that people with a pre-existing psychiatric diagnosis are 65% more likely to be diagnosed with coronavirus than those without, even when the known risk factors for Covid-19 were taken into account.

“People have been worried that Covid-19 survivors will be at greater risk of psychiatric disorders, and our findings in a large and detailed study show this to be true. Services need to be ready to provide care, especially since our results are likely to be underestimates of the actual number of cases. We urgently need research to investigate the causes and identify new treatments,” writes Dr Paul Harrison, professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford, who led the study. The findings have been published in The Lancet Pschiatry.

Starting that the finding regarding people with pre-exsitng psychiatric diagnosis was unexpected and needs to be further explored, Dr Max Taquet, NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow, who conducted the analyses, recommends that “in the meantime, having a psychiatric illness should be added to the list of risk factors for Covid-19.”

The analysis

The team used the TriNetX Network — a global health research network to access de-identified electronic medical records data of 62,254 patients diagnosed with coronavirus between January 20, 2020, and August 1, 2020, in the US. They compared psychiatric diagnoses in Covid-19 survivors with patients who had influenza, other respiratory tract infections, skin infections, large bone fractures, gallstones, and kidney stones.

The findings show that a diagnosis of coronavirus was associated with an increased incidence of a first diagnosis of anxiety, depression, or insomnia in the following 14 to 90 days (hazard ratio 2.1) compared to any other group of patients. It also reveals an increase in the rate of dementia and more relapses in people with a history of psychiatric problems in Covid-19 patients.

The experts looked at medical records of 69 million people in the US, of which 62,254 patients were diagnosed with coronavirus between January 20, 2020, and August 1, 2020 (Getty Images)

“The incidence of any psychiatric diagnosis in the 14 to 90 days after Covid-19 diagnosis was 18.1%. In the period between 14 and 90 days after Covid-19 diagnosis, 5.8% of Covid-19 survivors had their first recorded diagnosis of psychiatric illness compared with 2.5-3.4% of patients in the comparison cohorts. Thus, adults have an approximately doubled risk of being newly diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder after Covid-19 diagnosis. The most common psychiatric diagnosis after Covid-19 diagnosis was anxiety disorder (12.8%), followed by mood disorders (9.9%),” the findings state. It adds, “The incidence of a first diagnosis of dementia in the 14 to 90 days after Covid-19 diagnosis was 1.6% in people older than 65 years. A psychiatric diagnosis in the previous year was associated with a higher incidence of Covid-19 diagnosis, relative risk 1.65.”

According to the team, while preliminary, the findings have implications for clinical services. “Prospective cohort studies and longer-term follow-up studies are urgently needed to support and extend the findings of our study. Furthermore, enhanced psychiatric follow-up should be considered for patients who survive Covid-19. Finally, psychiatric history should be queried during the assessment of a patient presenting with Covid-19 symptoms to adjust pre-test probability,” they suggest.

What are other experts saying?

Dr Ciara McCabe, associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Reading, said that while he authors examined the risk of Covid-19 against other infections like the flu, it would be good to compare psychiatric risk factors for coronavirus against other health issues with similar death rates to covid which are suggested as much higher than the flu.

According to Professor David Curtis, retired consultant psychiatrist and an honorary professor at University College London and the Queen Mary University of London, emphasizes that it is difficult to judge the importance of the study findings. “For example, they show that there is an 18% chance of getting a psychiatric diagnosis after Covid-19 compared with 13% after influenza. These psychiatric diagnoses get made quite commonly when people present to doctors and it may be unsurprising that this happens a bit more often in people with Covid-19, who may understandably have been worried that they might become seriously unwell and who will also have had to endure a period of isolation,” he adds.

Depressed little boy sitting by the window, wearing surgical mask. Photo credit: Pixabay

The outcome

Dr Ciara McCabe, associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Reading, argues that the data support the importance of examining psychiatric risk factors for poor physical health and in particular serious infections like coronavirus. “As the authors note, this study cannot speak to the underlying mechanisms thus further investigation into this is urgently needed. The data suggest possible biological factors but again at present, these are only speculative. The authors don’t mention “long Covid.” it would be interesting to examine how psychiatric risk factors relate to various forms of Covid-19,” says McCabe.

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, Regius professor of psychiatry, King’s College London, explains that it is known from previous pandemics that having depression, for example, before infection increases the risk of depression after infection. “It would have been very surprising if this proved not to be the case for Covid-19. Covid-19 affects the central nervous system, and so might directly increase subsequent disorders. But this research confirms that is not the whole story, and that this risk is increased by previous ill health. We now have an opportunity to find out why,” says Wessely.

India implication

India has world’s largest population with unipolar depressive disorders. People here, irrespective of their age, suffer from anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders also. In fact, one out every 12 Indian needs medical intervention since their symptoms are either chronic or their severity is too high. A research carried by Public Health Foundation of India found that the mental disorders are prevalent the highest in older adults. In children, it is often seen in the form of idiopathic developmental intellectual disability, sometimes conduct disorders and autism.

The COVID-19 crisis inevitably led to the rise in anxiety levels of general public. The youth is uncertain of their future career prospects while entrepreneurs are uncertain about when things will get normal and so on. The pandemic has brought out the worst around us. And yet, a lack of mental health experts and organisations has left the affected groups vulnerable to their environment.

It is now that the lack of access to psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and psychiatric nurses seems evident to all. There’s an evident shortage of mental health experts who are accredited to provide patients with the transparency of treatment. Therefore, the study holds special importance for India as necessary measures are must to combat the situation.

As our common sense goes, it is important to take care of our minds in order to maintain a healthy, happy and fit body. If we ignore our mental peace and well-being, we cannot keep up with good health and eventually we start losing out on our fruitful and productive life.

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