Study: 1 in 3 COVID-19 survivors develop mental health problems within 6 months

A new study shows COVID-19 affects the mind and the brain in significant ways after researchers found a third of people who survive the virus develop mental health or brain disorders they never had before.

The study was published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal in April where researchers looked at data from about 236,000 COVID-19 survivors. They found about 1 in 3 developed mental health or brain disorders within the six months after their infection, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, nerve disorders, or even a stroke.

"The psych burden tended to decline a little over the six months that they studied people, that’s all they did, it was still there at the end. So it’s not like it always goes away on its own. You might need help with it," said Dr. Glenn Currier, the chair of the College of Medicine Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the University of South Florida.

Dr. Currier said the study shows how COVID-19 puts patients at risk.

"I think there is more widespread awareness of this in the medical community and it’s up to us who work in specialty areas such as psychiatry to organize care that’s appropriate for folks," said Dr. Currier.

The research separates out how the virus affected people instead of the impacts from the pandemic experience.

"There’s the more subtle stuff like general confusion, sleep problems and you know people don’t know how to put that into context, especially if they lost their job or they’re stuck in their house for months on end. They may assume that these symptoms with changes to their lifestyles, but I guess this paper points out that it’s a biological aftermath and that it’s fairly predictable," said Dr. Currier.

Florida Behavioral Health Association president and CEO Melanie Brown-Woofter said mental health providers saw more people needing their help in the last year.

"The industry, the system of care is feeling the pressure on creating access, getting people in when they need to be seen, and then being able to provide the appropriate treatment for them," said Brown-Woofter.

So they’re getting ready to meet even more demand.

"We’re a lifeline. We’re here for anyone who is experiencing any kind of difficulty whether it’s sleeplessness, or whether it’s schizophrenia or if you have a family member who’s experiencing problems," said Brown-Woofter. "We’ve been concerned all the way through about what the impact of this pandemic is going to be in the out years."

Experts said the takeaway from the study is how important it is to talk to your doctor.

"Don’t minimize it. Don’t be alarmist, but realize there’s help to be had and if people are struggling with any of this then they should seek out that help," said Dr. Currier.

The FBHA said providers ask patients about their medical backgrounds, so Brown-Woofter said the study also supports the correlation between physical and mental health.