Being Diagnosed with Lyme Disease Can Take a Toll on Mental Health, Study Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • Patients diagnosed with Lyme disease have a 28% higher rate of mental disorders, according to new research.
  • As a condition, it can cause various different cognitive and psychological side-effects in the long run.
  • Researchers hope these results will encourage both patients and doctors to keep an eye out for psychiatric symptoms resulting from the disease, particularly the first year after diagnosis.

At the beginning of her illness, Jocelyn Francis started experiencing flu-like symptoms, shakes, tremors, chronic fatigue, and brain fog.

“I was just totally exhausted and everything was a real struggle,” Francis, a 47-year-old non-ferrous metal trader from the United Kingdom, tells Verywell. The doctors decided to run blood tests, but it wasn’t until a rash showed up on her leg that her general practitioner diagnosed her with Lyme disease and prescribed her a three-week Doxycycline antibiotics treatment.

“I continued to feel horrific for most of those three weeks and began to worry that I would never recover,” Francis says. “It was probably the most terrifying thing I have ever encountered. There were days I thought that my life would never be the same again. I was a wreck.”

She says she felt like her whole life was about to crash and she had no control. Even joining online communities didn’t bring her any respite, as most of the posts were about people struggling with their symptoms, and that too was negatively impacting her mental health.

Now, new research finds that Francis isn't the only one who's struggled with a Lyme disease diagnosis.

Patients diagnosed with Lyme disease have a 28% higher rate of mental disorders, as well as being twice more likely to attempt suicide, compared to people who have not been diagnosed with the condition, according to research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry last month.

This research is among the first studies of this scale to dive deep into the relationship between Lyme disease and mental health. Its results encourage both patients and doctors to keep an eye out for psychiatric symptoms resulting from the disease, particularly the first year after diagnosis.

A Lyme Disease Diagnosis

Lyme disease, also formally known as Lyme borreliosis, is a disease caused by a bacteria humans may contract if they’re bitten by black-legged ticks found on deer. In the U.S., approximately 476,000 people are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease on a yearly basis, which may be an overestimate based on presumptive diagnosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The condition manifests itself in many ways and therefore can be difficult to diagnose, especially at the beginning stages. Typical symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Rash

“Lyme disease in most people is a mild illness accompanied by an expanding rash," lead study author Brian Fallon, MD, director of the Center for Neuroinflammatory Disorders and Biobehavioral Medicine, tells Verywell. "When detected and treated with antibiotics early, most people do not develop other problems."

There can be, however, some complications.

“However, when the agent of Lyme disease disseminates through the body, it may lead to painful syndromes such as meningitis or radiculitis or arthritis,” Fallon, who is also the director of the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research Center at Columbia University, says. "Or it may lead to cardiac conduction problems or cardiac muscle inflammation.” 

Although most cases can be treated with up to a month-long antibiotic treatment, up to 20% of patients experience lingering symptoms. Some continue to experience fatigue, brain fog, and more for years after the diagnosis. In some cases, the physical functional impairment is comparable to patients with congestive heart failure. Other studies noted a correlation between Lyme disease and cognitive disorders up to years after Lyme disease therapy.

Francis, for example, says she was lucky enough to receive an early diagnosis. But that’s not always the case. 

“It’s been over 14 years. Doctors couldn't help me or tell me anything about my future,” Jennifer Stone, a 38-year-old restaurant worker from West Virginia, tells Verywell. This feeling of uncertainty is a big factor in an individual's mental health decline. 

“Of course I became very depressed and hopeless," Stone says. "The craziest thoughts cross your mind. I went as far as to ask my husband for a divorce so I didn't have to burden him anymore.”

Stone, when asked about the latest statistics from the American Journal of Psychiatry research, says she’s not surprised. 

“That an infection of spirochetal origin might masquerade as a mental disorder was first proposed in the United States by a neurologist, when he referred to Lyme disease as the New Great Imitator, following the original great imitator syphilis,” Fallon adds. “It had been less clear whether individuals with Lyme disease, in general, might also be at increased risk of mental disorders and suicidal behaviors.”

What This Means For You

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and isn't sure where to get help, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357). It's confidential, free, and runs 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year. It's available in English and Spanish. If you call this helpline, they can give you referrals to local treatment centers, support groups, and other organizations.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, dial 988 to contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect with a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Lyme Disease Takes a Toll on Mental Health

To answer these questions, Fallon’s team of researchers pored through the medical record of nearly 7 million people living in Denmark over a 22-year period. They analyzed mental health data for patients who had a hospital-based Lyme disease diagnosis. 

Patients who previously had already had records of mental disorder or suicidality were excluded from the analysis. This information was then cross-referenced with mental health data for patients who had never been diagnosed with Lyme disease.

“Based on the prior smaller studies and case reports, we were expecting that Lyme disease could be associated with subsequent mental health issues among some of the individuals that experienced long-term symptoms,” Michael Benros, MD, PhD, study author and professor of immuno-psychiatry at the University of Copenhagen, tells Verywell.

This investigation found that patients with Lyme disease have a 42% higher rate of affective disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder, and a 75% higher rate of death by suicide. Plus, if patients have been diagnosed with more than one episode of Lyme disease, the rates are even higher.

“Although we observed an increased risk, the absolute population risk is luckily low, meaning that most do not develop severe mental health issues after Lyme borreliosis,” Benros, who is also the head of biological and precision psychiatry at Mental Health Centre Copenhagen, says.

However, the researchers agree that these numbers would likely be higher if mental health issues not requiring hospital visits had also been possible to include.  

The researchers also noted that, for example, some tick species may cause more robust host inflammatory responses than others. Since inflammation may lead to depression, it is possible that impaired mental health may be a more common associated feature with Lyme disease in some areas more than others. 

Starting to answer questions like these pave the way for even more research in the field. Overall, these results are emblematic of a trend in Lyme disease cases that should not be overlooked, the researchers stress.

“Treating clinicians and patients, should be aware of an increased risk of mental health problems,” Benros says. “If mental health issues arise, patients should seek relevant treatment and guidance.”

5 Sources
Verywell Health 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. Fallon B, Madsen T, Erlangsen A, Benros M. Lyme Borreliosis and Associations With Mental Disorders and Suicidal Behavior: A Nationwide Danish Cohort Study. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2021:appi.ajp.2021.2. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2021.20091347

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lyme Disease.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Signs and Symptoms of Untreated Lyme Disease.

  4. Johnson L, Wilcox S, Mankoff J, Stricker R. Severity of chronic Lyme disease compared to other chronic conditions: a quality of life survey. PeerJ. 2014;2:e322. doi:10.7717/peerj.322

  5. Berende A, Agelink van Rentergem J, Evers A et al. Cognitive impairments in patients with persistent symptoms attributed to Lyme disease. BMC Infect Dis. 2019;19(1). doi:10.1186/s12879-019-4452-y

By Sofia Quaglia
Sofia Quaglia is a science and health writer based between Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States.