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The Tie Between Long COVID-19 and Mental Health Issues

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For many people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 illness, enduring the initial barrage of symptoms is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, between 10 and 30 percent of people with COVID-19 will go on to develop long COVID-19, an affliction that medical researchers are still trying to understand. Of the host of lingering symptoms that have been associated with long COVID-19, mental health issues and cognitive problems pose a unique burden for a country that is already plagued by a mental health crisis. 

In honor of May’s status as Mental Health Awareness Month, here’s what you need to know about this important health holiday, long COVID-19, the link between long COVID-19 and mental health conditions, and how the federal government plans to address these significant concerns. 

Defining Mental Health Awareness Month and Long COVID-19 Illness 

Each May, several different organizations that are dedicated to supporting those with mental illness and improving care for mental health conditions come together to draw attention to the plight of millions of Americans who suffer from a mental health condition. During this month, partners contribute resources, publicize information about support groups, and share personal stories to destigmatize mental health disorders and encourage people to seek effective treatment. 

This May, it is particularly important to raise awareness about mental health issues, as many people suffering from long COVID-19 illness may be experiencing a mental health concern for the first time. Long COVID-19 is defined by the American Medical Association (AMA) as a “wide range of new or ongoing health problems people may experience more than four weeks after being first infected with SARS-Cov-2.” You don’t have to be supremely ill to develop long COVID illness, as people who only experience mild COVID-19 have gone on to have lingering symptoms. These symptoms can affect every body system, from cardiac to respiratory and psychiatric to gastrointestinal.

What Is the Connection Between Mental Illness and Long COVID-19? 

When it comes to long COVID-19 illness, many patients have struggled with symptoms such as anxiety, depression, cognitive dysfunction (“brain fog”), and fatigue. A recent study conducted by the US Department of Veterans Affairs compared people who had endured COVID-19 illness to those who had not and found that people who’d had COVID-19 were at an increased risk of anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, stress and adjustment disorders, and the use of antidepressants and benzodiazepine medications. They were also more likely to be prescribed opiate medication, develop an opioid use disorder or non-opioid substance use disorder, experience cognitive decline, and experience a sleep disorder. Although people who had not been admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 had an increased risk of developing a mental health condition, the risk was even higher for those who had been hospitalized in the first 30 days of COVID-19 illness. 

Several other researchers have been studying the connection between mental illness and long COVID-19, too. Some have found that people who have a pre-existing mental health condition are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues with long COVID-19 illness. Others have quantified the impact of long COVID-19 on the development of psychiatric conditions, finding the prevalence of some conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in post-COVID patients to be as high as 32 percent. 

Plans to Address Long-Term Effects of COVID-19 

The mental health impacts of long COVID-19 illness are myriad and, in a recent memo, the US presidential administration laid out its plans to address the long-term effects of this highly prevalent condition. The administration pledges to organize the federal government’s response by engaging all departments and agencies to quicken the pace of scientific research, and it also plans to invest heavily in mental health treatment and recovery programs to support those suffering from mental health aspects of long COVID-19 disease. 

How to Learn More about Long COVID and Mental Health Issues 

Mental health issues can take a significant toll on the quality of daily life; however, knowledge is power. If you are interested in learning more about the connection between long COVID-19 and mental health concerns—for yourself, a loved one, or in your capacity as a public health communicator—check out this feature from the American Psychological Association (APA). 

For more about National Mental Health Awareness Month, including a breakdown of specific events occurring throughout the month, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s page. 

Research and materials for this article were compiled, written, and distributed on behalf of the National Public Health Information Coalition. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the various authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Public Health Information Coalition or its members. 

References: 

  1. Mental Health Awareness Month. https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Awareness-Events/Mental-Health-Awareness-Month 
  1. What doctors wish patients knew about long COVID. https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/what-doctors-wish-patients-knew-about-long-covid#:~:text=Long%20COVID%E2%80%94or%20post,%2DCoV%2D2. 
  1. Risks of mental health outcomes in people with COVID-19: Cohort study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8847881/ 
  1. Post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 and the mental health implications. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8959835/ 
  1. Psychiatric and neuropsychiatric presentations associated with severe coronavirus infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis with comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7234781/ 
  1. Memorandum on Addressing the Long-Term Effects of COVID-⁠19. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2022/04/05/memorandum-on-addressing-the-long-term-effects-of-covid-19/ 

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