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New research suggests Covid-19 may cause depression

Psychiatrist says doctors have suspected a link between the novel coronavirus and mental health problems, and latest studies 'appear to be confirming it'

12 February 2021 - 06:00 By shonisani tshikalange
Recent medical studies appear to confirm suspicions that there may be a link between the coronavirus and mental health problems. Stock photo.
Recent medical studies appear to confirm suspicions that there may be a link between the coronavirus and mental health problems. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/milkos

New research suggests that Covid-19 may significantly increase chances of developing a psychiatric disorder.

This is according to psychiatrist Dr Marshinee Naidoo, who practises at the Akeso Alberton mental health facility in Johannesburg.

Naidoo said on Thursday that mental health practitioners long suspected that there may be a link between the novel coronavirus and the development of mental health problems in individuals — but the “latest medical studies now appear to be confirming it”.

“There is much about the virus and its behaviour that is as yet unknown, and researchers are still working to establish exactly how Covid-19 may affect the mind and functioning of the brain. However, this new research suggests that people who have been ill with Covid-19 had a significant chance of developing a psychiatric disorder while battling the infection and even after recovering,” she said.

According to Naidoo, a recent study published in The Lancet in November 2020 found that 18% of Covid-19 patients developed a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, or dementia, within three months of diagnosis.

She said they also had double the risk of those individuals who did not contract the virus.

Meanwhile, Naidoo said, a recent survey from Ecuador suggests that people diagnosed with Covid-19 commonly experience depression, anxiety, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There is growing evidence that Covid-19 can affect the brain and mind of some individuals, increasing the risk of a range of psychiatric illnesses,” said Naidoo.

The Lancet study, which evaluated the health records of more than 62,000 people diagnosed with Covid-19 in the US, suggests that nearly 6% of adults diagnosed with Covid-19 developed a psychiatric disorder, for the first time ever, within 90 days. This compared to just 3.4% of patients who did not contract the respiratory illness.

Naidoo said this means that those who developed Covid-19 had twice the risk of developing a mood or anxiety disorder for the first time.

“Being diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness such as Covid-19 can in itself be extremely stressful.

“Those individuals who test positive for the virus also have to isolate themselves, which can affect their mental health. And while patients would usually look to loved ones for support while they recover, they are not able to in the case of Covid-19 infection as they need to avoid transmitting the infection. They therefore lack this most important means of support,” Naidoo said.

She said many Covid-19 patients, known as the “long haulers”, may have a range of debilitating physical symptoms that can last for many months and severely affect their daily lives.

“This can place additional stressors on them, including difficulties returning to their normal activities such as work, or child-minding.”

Naidoo said that in addition to the isolation involved, Covid-19 diagnosis and treatment are more likely to be more traumatic than for many other medical conditions due to the potential severity of the illness and the lack of certainty regarding its treatment and outcome.

According to Naidoo, all of these factors mean that infection can potentially have a considerable affect on the mental health of the individual who has experienced Covid-19 infection with moderate to severe symptoms.

Furthermore, those with pre-existing medical conditions may be particularly vulnerable to having an existing mental health condition worsened by an infection.  

She said that there is, however, an additional aspect to being ill with the virus as medical science has shown that Covid-19 is not necessarily just a respiratory illness but that the disease also often affects other organs, including the brain.

“Medical researchers are still working to understand how the virus interacts with the brain and the central nervous system, but they suspect that it may in some cases inflame and cause damage to the blood supply system and lead to swelling of the brain.

“If the virus affects the central nervous system in such a way, this could certainly potentially result in a psychiatric illness of one kind or another. Indeed, some studies show that Covid-19 patients frequently experience neurological complications, such as dizziness, confusion, delirium and other cognitive problems.

“A person’s sleep patterns can also be affected. This may in turn lead to insomnia and develop into depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders,” said Naidoo.

She said it was critical to follow doctor’s advice if one develops Covid-19.