CORVALLIS, Ore. – A recent study from Oregon State University found that COVID-19 patients had about a 25% increased risk of developing a psychiatric disorder in the four months following their infection, compared to people who had other types of respiratory infections.
The findings support previous research on psychiatric disorders in post-COVID patients, although the current study found a smaller effect than the previous studies, said co-author Lauren Chan, Ph.D. Nutrition student at OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences.
For the current study, published in World Psychiatry, researchers used data from the National COVID Cohort Collaborative (N3C) to match 46,610 COVID-19 positive individuals with control patients diagnosed with another respiratory infection so they could compare how COVID specifically affected mental health of patients.
They examined the rate of psychiatric diagnoses for two time periods: 21 to 120 days after patients’ COVID diagnosis and 120 to 365 days after diagnosis, limited to patients with no prior mental illness.
Researchers found that COVID patients had a 3.8% rate of developing a psychiatric disorder, compared to 3.0% for other respiratory infections. The difference of 0.8% corresponds to an approximately 25% increased relative risk.
Specifically, they looked at anxiety disorders and mood disorders and found a small but significant increase in the risk of anxiety disorders and no change in the risk of mood disorders.
The large sample size and the fact that this data cohort came from across the US gave the researchers a unique window on post-COVID side effects, Chan said.
The results suggest that both patients and healthcare providers need to be more proactive when it comes to addressing mental health issues after COVID infection, she said.
“For people who have had COVID, if you’re feeling anxiety, if you’re seeing some changes in your life from a psychiatric perspective, it’s totally appropriate to seek help,” Chan said. “And if you’re a healthcare provider, you have to be on the proactive side and start looking for those psychiatric conditions and then follow up on those patients.”
When patients leave a doctor’s office, care sometimes stops there, but Chan recommended providers call two weeks for a check-in.
“There could certainly be people who are struggling with new things like this, and they need that extra support or urge to seek help,” she said. “I’m not saying that every single person who gets COVID will have this type of problem, but when you start to worry about yourself or a family member, it’s not uncommon. You should definitely take care of yourself or others around you.”
In the larger context of COVID and healthcare in the US, any increase in the number of people in need of care, particularly mental health care, will further strain a system that is already being stretched to maximum capacity, Chan said.
“We’ve already had difficulty finding a professional to work with and we will continue to struggle to get people the care they need,” she said. “When we see this kind of increase in post-COVID psychiatric illness and people recognize it and seek treatment, it’s a cause for concern.”
The study’s lead author, Ben Coleman of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, is already working on a follow-up paper designed to explore the link between symptoms of a long COVID and emerging mental illness.