COVID-19 ups risk of developing mental health issues, large study suggests

People who had COVID-19 were 39 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression in the months after their infection compared to those without COVID-19, according to a study of nearly 154,000 COVID-19 patients at the Veterans Health Administration. 

To conduct the study, published Feb. 15 in The BMJ, researchers looked at medical records from 153,848 VA COVID-19 patients who tested positive between March 2020 and January 2021 and who survived at least 30 days. The patients were followed through Nov. 30, 2021, and compared to a contemporary control group of more than 5.6 million VA patients who didn't test positive, as well as a cohort of 5.8 million pre-pandemic patients. 

Findings showed in the months following infection, COVID-19 patients were 39 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression and 35 percent more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety compared to patients without COVID-19. The COVID-19 cohort was also more likely to be diagnosed with stress and adjustment disorders (38 percent) and sleep disorders (41 percent). Overall, those who were hospitalized for COVID-19 were more likely to be diagnosed with mental health issues relative to those with less severe illness, though those with mild cases were still more likely to receive such a diagnosis compared to uninfected people. 

"There appears to be a clear excess of mental health diagnoses in the months after COVID," Dr. Paul Harrison, psychiatry professor at the University of Oxford in the U.K, who was not involved in the study, told The New York Times. "It's not an epidemic of anxiety and depression, fortunately," he said. "But it's not trivial."  The study findings did not indicate most COVID-19 patients develop mental health problems, as only 4.4 percent of the COVID-19 cohort developed depression, and 5.5 received anxiety or stress and adjustment disorder diagnoses. 

Senior author on the study, Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, told the Times his team is now planning to evaluate whether subsequent vaccination alters people's mental health symptoms and other post COVID-19 symptoms, as many of the patients were infected before vaccinations were widely available. Dr. Al-Aly is chief of research and development at the VA St. Louis Health Care System and a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis. 

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