Covid patients may be at increased risk of developing mental health problems

After having Covid, people were 55 percent more likely to take prescription antidepressants and 65 percent more likely to take prescription anti-anxiety drugs than contemporaries without Covid, the study found.

Overall, more than 18 percent of Covid patients received a diagnosis or prescription for a neuropsychiatric problem in the following year, compared with less than 12 percent of the non-Covid group. Covid patients were 60 percent more likely to fall into those categories than people who didn’t have Covid, the study found.

The study found that patients hospitalized for Covid were more likely to have mental health problems than patients with less severe coronavirus infections. But people with mild initial infections were still at greater risk than people without Covid.

“Some people always say, ‘Oh, well, maybe people are depressed because they had to go to the hospital and they spent a week in the ICU,'” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, chief of research and development at the VA St. Louis Health Care System and a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “In people who were not hospitalized for Covid-19, the risk was lower but certainly significant. And most people don’t need to be hospitalized, so that’s really the group that’s representative of most people with Covid-19.”

The team also compared the mental health diagnoses of people hospitalized for Covid with those hospitalized for other reasons. “Whether people were hospitalized for heart attacks or chemotherapy or any other condition, the Covid-19 group showed a higher risk,” said Dr. Al-Aly.

The study included electronic health records of 153,848 adults who tested positive for the coronavirus between March 1, 2020 and January 15, 2021 and were alive for at least 30 days. Because it was early in the pandemic, very few were vaccinated before infection. The patients were followed until November 30, 2021. Dr. Al-Aly said his team planned to analyze whether subsequent vaccination changed people’s psychological symptoms, as well as other post-Covid medical problems the group has studied.

The Covid patients were compared to more than 5.6 million patients in the Veteran System who did not test positive for the coronavirus and to more than 5.8 million pre-pandemic patients from March 2018 to January 2019. To try and compare the mental health effects of Covid-19 against that of another virus, the patients were also compared with about 72,000 patients who had the flu in the two and a half years before the pandemic. (Dr. Al-Aly said there were too few flu cases during the pandemic to make a concurrent comparison.)

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