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Study: COVID-19 Survivors May Be at Greater Mental Health Risk


A patient with mental disorders sits in a living room at The Ville-Evrard Psychiatric Hospital in Saint-Denis, north of Paris on November 3, 2020. (Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)
Study: COVID-19 Survivors May Be at Greater Risk of Mental Health Issues
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Researchers say COVID-19 survivors may be at greater risk of developing mental health issues than other people. That information comes from a large study published earlier this week.

The study found that 20 percent of those infected with the novel coronavirus are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within 90 days.

Researchers from Britain’s Oxford University studied recovered COVID-19 patients who developed mental health problems. They found that the most common issues were anxiety, depression, and insomnia -- the inability to sleep. They also noted a much higher risk of dementia, a condition that weakens the brain.

Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at Oxford, is one of the researchers. He told Reuters news agency, “People have been worried that COVID-19 survivors will be at greater risk of mental health problems, and our findings ... show this to be likely.”

Harrison urged doctors and scientists around the world to urgently investigate the causes of mental conditions after COVID-19. And he wants them to find new treatments for the disease.

Health services need to be ready to provide care, Harrison warned. This is especially true, he said, because the estimates from the study are probably on the low side.

The Oxford researchers looked at electronic health records of 69 million people in the United States. This number included more than 62,000 cases of COVID-19. The researchers said the findings are likely to be the same for those infected by COVID-19 worldwide.

In the three months following a positive test result for COVID-19, one in five survivors said they experienced a first-time diagnosis of anxiety, depression or insomnia. The researchers said that COVID-19 survivors were twice as likely to be diagnosed with these conditions than other groups of patients in the same three-month period.

The study also found that people with a pre-existing mental condition were 65 percent more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than those without.

A report on the study appeared in The Lancet Psychiatry journal.

Mental health specialists not directly involved with the study said its findings add to growing evidence that COVID-19 affects the brain. They said that the disease also can increase the risk of many psychiatric disorders.

“This is likely due to a combination of the psychological stressors associated with this particular pandemic and the physical effects of the illness,” noted Michael Bloomfield. He is a psychiatrist with University College London.

The fact that people with mental health disorders are at higher risk of getting COVID-19 confirms similar findings in other infectious disease outbreaks, said Simon Wessely. He is a professor of psychiatry at King’s College London.

“COVID-19 affects the central nervous system,” Wessely said, “and so might directly increase” other disorders. But he added that the study confirms there is more going on. The risk, he said, is increased by pre-existing health conditions.

Marjorie Wallace is chief of the mental health aid group SANE. She said the study looks like her organization’s experience during the coronavirus health crisis.

Wallace said that SANE’s telephone helpline is dealing with an increasing number of first-time callers who are having mental health issues. Others are relapsing, she said, because their fear and anxiety have become unbearable.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Reporting by Kate Kelland reported this story for Reuters news agency. Anna Matteo adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

diagnose – v. to recognize a disease, illness, etc., in (someone)

psychiatry – n. a branch of medicine that deals with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders psychiatric – adj.

anxiety – n. fear or nervousness about what might happen

dementia – n. a usually progressive condition (as Alzheimer's disease) marked by the development of multiple cognitive deficits (as memory impairment, aphasia, and inability to plan and initiate complex behavior)

positive – adj. good or useful

journal – n. a periodical dealing especially with matters of current interest

stressor – n. a stimulus that causes stress

outbreak – n. a sudden rise in the incidence of a disease
relapse – n. the return of an illness after a period of improvement

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