Getting COVID May Increase Your Risk of Developing Mental Health Issues

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that people who recover from COVID-19 have an increased risk of a variety of mental health problems.
  • Neuroinflammation from the virus and the immune response to it may be responsible for the increase of mental health outcomes after COVID-19.
  • It’s important to seek professional help if you feel your mental health getting worse over time.

There’s no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic and the public health measures we needed to take have been major contributing factors in people’s deteriorating mental health. But the infection itself seems to be playing a role as well.

According to a recent study published in BMJ, people who recover from COVID-19 have an increased risk of developing a variety of mental health outcomes, such as mood disorders, substance use disorders, and neurocognitive disorders, within one year after the acute infection.

The study confirms what healthcare professionals have been observing in practice for the past two years, experts said. With more people getting infected every day, it’s necessary for mental health services to be more available and accessible to everyone.

Increased Risk of Mental Health Problems

The researchers studied more than 153,000 people who had COVID-19 and compared them to a control group of more than 11 million people without the virus. They found that people who recovered from their acute COVID-19 infection showed an increased risk of the following:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Stress and adjustment disorders
  • Use of antidepressants and benzodiazepines
  • Opioid use disorders
  • Use of naloxone or naltrexone, buprenorphine, and methadone
  • Illicit drug use
  • Alcohol use disorders
  • Sedative or hypnotic use disorders
  • Neurocognitive decline
  • Sleep disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

A study published in Virology Journal earlier this year also found high levels of post-traumatic stress among people who had had COVID-19.

“We know [long-term psychological effects] can occasionally happen following most acute illnesses, but this study suggests the rate of mental health issues following COVID infection may well be higher than observed with other viral infections such as influenza, for example,” Mark Loafman, MD, MPH, a family physician at Cook County Health, told Verywell.

An earlier 2021 study published in The Lancet Psychiatry found that the incidence of neurological or psychiatric diagnosis six months after getting COVID-19 was about 33.62%, and the risk appeared to be higher among those who had a severe case. Overall, these studies demonstrate the need for mental health support among recovered patients.

“It is clear that millions of millions of people in the U.S. and around the world could develop mental health problems as a consequence of COVID-19,” Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, senior author of the BMJ study, chief of research and development at the VA Saint Louis Health Care System, told Verywell. “I think health systems and governments should be prepared to deal with these patients and it is very important to deal with this now to prevent it from ballooning into a larger mental health crisis down the road.”

Research shows that the spread of infectious diseases—such as the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s and today’s COVID-19 pandemic—does not only affect the mental health of infected patients, but also their families, healthcare workers, and the general public.

How COVID-19 Affects Mental Health

The trauma, fear, and uncertainty of having COVID-19 may play a role, but the exact mechanism in which the infection affects an individual’s mental health is not yet clear.

“It is likely biological and driven by the virus and the immune response to it,” Al-Aly said. “Both the virus and the immune response to it may provoke neuroinflammation and result in changes in brain chemistry, neuronal connections, and several types of brain cells. All these could be playing a role in producing the manifestations we see in people with COVID-19.”

The study included participants who had no previous psychiatric history—which meant no mental health diagnoses or drug prescriptions within two years before getting infected—so the researchers could focus on the symptoms that occurred after COVID-19.

“It is possible that COVID-19 was more spread and more severe in population groups which were already prone to higher rates of mental illness, such as inner city population or certain minorities,” Paula Zimbrean, MD, Yale Medicine psychiatrist and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, told Verywell. 

The pandemic had a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minority groups, lower-income communities, and other vulnerable populations, who may already be at risk for mental health problems. Getting infected with the virus would then put them at a much higher risk.

What This Means For You

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. The call is free and they can provide referrals to treatment centers, support groups, and other help that you need.

Look After Your Mental Health

After recovering from COVID-19, it’s important that you perform regular check-ins with yourself and take notice of any symptoms and potentially harmful coping mechanisms.

“Watch out for signs of potentially dangerous self-medication using alcohol, drugs or other potentially addictive behaviors and activities,” Loafman said. “It can be a fine line between enjoying a glass of wine in the evening—safe and healthy for most people—versus using alcohol as a sleep aid or to mask depression and anxiety. This is, of course, also true for prescription medications.”

Nobody has to struggle in silence. Be open to seeking professional help if you notice your mental health condition getting worse over time or you’re thinking of hurting yourself. 

“[If] symptoms persist—for example, unshakable sadness and poor concentration, lack of interest and motivation—mental health help should be sought,” Zimbrean said. “The expansion of telemedicine made treatment more available and more convenient in many parts of the country.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the rapid rise of telemedicine services, which allows people to seek medical care from the comfort of their own homes. If you don’t want to put yourself at risk for reinfection, you can try going to teletherapy sessions instead of going in person.

“For people affected, I would say to them: You are not alone,” Al-Aly added. “There are millions of people like you in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. It is important to seek help early.”

If someone you know had COVID-19, you can also look after them and provide them with the support that they need.

“We as a society, as friends, family members, and colleagues we should be aware that this is happening,” Al-Aly said. “If we see someone suffering or displaying symptoms, we need to make sure that we are supporting them, making sure they are aware of the resources that are available to them, and help them get the help they need as soon as possible.”

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.

4 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.
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  2. Jafri MR, Zaheer A, Fatima S, Saleem T, Sohail A. Mental health status of COVID-19 survivors: a cross sectional study. Virol J. 2022;19(1):3. doi:10.1186/s12985-021-01729-3

  3. Taquet M, Geddes JR, Husain M, Luciano S, Harrison PJ. 6-month neurological and psychiatric outcomes in 236 379 survivors of COVID-19: a retrospective cohort study using electronic health records. Lancet Psychiatry. 2021;8(5):415-427. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(21)00084-5

  4. Hsieh KY, Kao WT, Li DJ, et al. Mental health in biological disasters: from SARS to COVID-19. Int J Soc Psychiatry. 2021;67(5):576-586. doi:10.1177/0020764020944200

By Carla Delgado
Carla M. Delgado is a health and culture writer based in the Philippines.