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Experts say there are a number of places people can seek help for mental health issues caused by COVID-19. Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
  • Researchers say people who’ve been hospitalized for COVID-19 have a higher risk of developing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.
  • Experts say the higher risk is partly due to the fact that COVID-19 can attack numerous parts of the body as well as cause mental stress.
  • They say people should be advised about potential mental health issues when they’re discharged from the hospital after recovering from COVID-19.

COVID-19 typically causes symptoms similar to influenza, such as fever, sore throat, shortness of breath, body aches, and headache.

With COVID-19, however, some people also experience long-term effects. The novel coronavirus can affect many body systems and organs, including the heart, kidneys, and brain.

It can also cause psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and dementia.

A new study published in the journal Psychiatry reports that people with severe COVID-19 and other severe respiratory infections (SARI) are more at risk of developing a neuropsychiatric illness within 12 months of their condition. Researchers looked at new mental health diagnoses that included anxiety, dementia, psychosis, depression, and bipolar disorder.

The researchers examined medical records of people who were discharged after COVID-19 or SARI-related hospital admission. Starting from a pool of 8 million people, scientists looked at medical records from 16,679 hospital discharges from a SARI and 32,525 from a COVID-19 hospitalization.

The researchers reported that for people who’ve had COVID-19 or SARI, the risk of developing neuropsychiatric illnesses within 12 months of hospital discharge was higher than those hospitalized for other medical conditions.

However, when comparing the results of COVID-19 and SARI, the researchers found similar results indicating that severe respiratory infections could result in a mental health diagnosis even after recovery.

“It is important to note that the people in this study had severe enough infections to require hospitalization,” Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a psychiatrist with expertise in sleep medicine, told Healthline. “Hospitalization often means things got clinically bad enough to require a hospital stay – and this often means hypoxia, sepsis, or other illness symptoms that became severe. When the body is that sick, there are certainly impacts on the brain – from infection, inflammation, or low oxygen, and these can be damaging to brain tissue.”

A study published in February 2022 found similar associations between COVID-19 recovery and mental health diagnoses.

This study looked at 153,848 medical records for veterans in the United States who tested positive for COVID-19. Researchers compared those veterans with the medical records of 5 million veterans with no evidence of COVID-19 and a control group of close to 6 million veterans before the pandemic.

The researchers reported there was a significant increase in mental health diagnoses in the group who had COVID-19 even among those who did not require hospitalization. The diagnoses included:

  • Anxiety, depression, and stress disorders.
  • Opioid addiction.
  • Substance use.
  • Neurocognitive declines.
  • Sleep disorders.

The researchers also compared the COVID-19 group to people diagnosed with seasonal influenza and other respiratory viral infections. They found those with COVID-19 consistently had a higher risk of developing mental illness.

“COVID is a whole-body syndrome,” Dr. David A. Merrill, a psychiatrist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, told Healthline. “It is not surprising that there are psychiatric effects from the virus. We see both medical and psychological long-term effects with the fallout found from head to toe. This might be from the virus itself, from inflammation, or immunologic factors.”

Experts say the first step is to realize that mental health issues are real.

They say people should be warned of mental health symptoms in people after they’ve recovered from COVID-19.

“Discharge instructions for hospitalized patients should include follow-up with their primary care physician to assess their physical and mental health,” said Merrill. “The primary care physician should also talk to those who did not require hospitalization as their treatment ends.”

“Discharge instructions could include questionnaires for anxiety and depression,” suggests Dimitriu. “Information about how depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder present can be helpful. A more general warning, such as changes in mood or personality, should be mentioned, so both patients and family know the warning signs. It would also help to add possible referral sources should that become necessary.”

Experts say the best place to start when seeking help for mental health issues is with your family doctor.

A primary care physician can typically complete initial screening and provide referrals to mental health specialists.

If you don’t have a family doctor, reach out to mental health organizations that can give you the name of providers in your area.

These include:

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
  • Depressive and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA).
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).