Psychiatric fallout from long-COVID: How to prepare


As mounting evidence points to a significant psychiatric component of COVID-19, experts are concerned about an influx of survivors presenting with persistent mental health problems and how best to prepare.

Dr. Silvia S. Martins

Dr. Silvia S. Martins

Clinicians should be aware that patients who have had COVID frequently develop psychiatric symptoms, Silvia S. Martins, MD, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology, Columbia University, New York, said in an interview.

“There should be more screening of all patients recovering from a COVID infection for anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and depression, as well as referral to services, including psychotherapy, and medication as needed,” said Dr. Martins, who, along with colleagues, uncovered a high rate of these symptoms in patients who had the disease.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an enormous social, emotional, and public health toll. It has disrupted lives and caused stress, fear, and uncertainty about loss of health and income, not to mention forced isolation.

In addition, a significant number of patients who contract COVID-19 continue to have symptoms after the acute phase of the illness. This post-COVID, or “long-haul,” syndrome isn’t well defined; experts cite a range of symptoms that persist for weeks or months.

These ongoing symptoms can include cough, fatigue, and chronic pain, as well as psychiatric complaints. As reported by this news organization, an observational study of more than 230,000 U.S. patient health records revealed that one in three COVID-19 survivors received a psychiatric or neurologic diagnosis within 6 months of contracting the virus.

The most common psychiatric diagnoses were anxiety disorders, mood disorders, substance misuse disorders, and insomnia.

Significant symptoms even in mild cases

Another study showed that even those with mild COVID-19 may experience psychiatric symptoms independently of previous psychiatric diagnoses. Results revealed that 26% of the sample of almost 900 patients reported depression, 22% reported anxiety, and 17% reported symptoms of posttraumatic stress 2 months after testing positive for the virus. This finding is important because the majority of individuals who contract COVID-19 have a mild case.

Dr. Mauricio J. Castaldelli-Maia

Dr. João Mauricio Castaldelli-Maia

“We saw very high levels of clinically significant depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress symptoms in people who had mild disease,” study investigator João Mauricio Castaldelli-Maia, MD, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, department of epidemiology, Columbia University, said in an interview.

He attributed these symptoms in part to long periods of isolation, even from relatives in the same household, in cramped spaces typical of large cities such as São Paulo.

Social isolation can have a huge impact on persons who depend on social connections and relationships, Vivian Pender, MD, president of the American Psychiatric Association and clinical professor of psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York, said in an interview.

Dr. Vivian Pender

Dr. Vivian Pender

“The fact that we have not been able to see our colleagues, our friends, our family, and in the case of psychiatrists, even our patients has taken a toll on everyone, and that leads to more stress, more anxiety,” she said.

National surveys show that psychiatric symptoms occur after acute COVID. One survey revealed that over 50% of 3,900 respondents who had COVID reported having at least moderate symptoms of major depression.


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