There’s little doubt that long COVID is real. Even as doctors and federal agencies struggle to define the syndrome, hospitals and health care systems are opening long COVID specialty treatment programs. As of July 25, there’s at least one long COVID center in almost every state – 48 out of 50, according to the patient advocacy group Survivor Corps.
Among the biggest challenges will be treating the mental health effects of long COVID.
Specialized centers will be tackling these problems even as the United States struggles to deal with mental health needs.
One study of COVID patients found more than one-third of them had symptoms of depression, anxiety, or PTSD 3-6 months after their initial infection. Another analysis of 30 previous studies of long COVID patients found roughly one in eight of them had severe depression – and that the risk was similar regardless of whether people were hospitalized for COVID-19.
“Many of these symptoms can emerge months into the course of long COVID illness,” said Jordan Anderson, DO, a neuropsychiatrist who sees patients at the Long COVID-19 Program at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland. Psychological symptoms are often made worse by physical setbacks like extreme fatigue and by challenges of working, caring for children, and keeping up with daily routines, he said.
“This impact is not only severe, but also chronic for many,” he said.
Like dozens of hospitals around the country, Oregon Health & Science opened its center for long COVID as it became clear that more patients would need help for ongoing physical and mental health symptoms. Today, there’s at least one long COVID center – sometimes called post-COVID care centers or clinics – in every state but Kansas and South Dakota, Survivor Corps said.
Many long COVID care centers aim to tackle both physical and mental health symptoms, said Tracy Vannorsdall, PhD, a neuropsychologist with the Johns Hopkins Post-Acute COVID-19 Team program. One goal at Hopkins is to identify patients with psychological issues that might otherwise get overlooked.
A sizable minority of patients at the Johns Hopkins center – up to about 35% – report mental health problems that they didn’t have until after they got COVID-19, Dr. Vannorsdall says. The most common mental health issues providers see are depression, anxiety, and trauma-related distress.
“Routine assessment is key,” Dr. Vannorsdall said. “If patients are not asked about their mental health symptoms, they may not spontaneously report them to their provider due to fear of stigma or simply not appreciating that there are effective treatments available for these issues.”
Fear that doctors won’t take symptoms seriously is common, says Heather Murray MD, a senior instructor in psychiatry at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora.
“Many patients worry their physicians, loved ones, and society will not believe them or will minimize their symptoms and suffering,” said Dr. Murray, who treats patients at the UCHealth Post-COVID Clinic.
Diagnostic tests in long COVID patients often don’t have conclusive results, which can lead doctors and patients themselves to question whether symptoms are truly “physical versus psychosomatic,” she said. “It is important that providers believe their patients and treat their symptoms, even when diagnostic tests are unrevealing.”