From the Journals

Preexisting mental illness symptoms spiked during pandemic



Mental health symptoms at the time of admission to an inpatient psychiatric hospital were significantly more severe during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the time before the pandemic, based on data from more than 500 individuals.

“Those with preexisting mental health conditions may be particularly vulnerable to these effects because they are more susceptible to experiencing high levels of stress during a crisis and are more likely to experience isolation/despair during confinement compared to the general population,” wrote Danna Ramirez of The Menninger Clinic, Houston, and colleagues.

In a study published in Psychiatry Research , the investigators compared data from 142 adolescents aged 12-17 years and 470 adults aged 18-79 years who were admitted to an inpatient psychiatric hospital in Houston. Of these, 65 adolescents and 235 adults were admitted before the pandemic, and 77 adolescents and 235 adults were admitted during the pandemic.

Clinical outcomes were scores on the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale (GAD-7), the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9), the Patient Health Questionnaire for Adolescents (PHQ-A), the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale–Short Form (DERS-SF), the World Health Organization Disability Assessment Scale (WHODAS), the World Health Organization Alcohol, Smoking, and Substance Involvement Screening Test (WHOASSIST), the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), the Disturbing Dream and Nightmare Severity Index (DDNSI), and the Suicide Behaviors Questionnaire–Revised (SBQ-R).

Overall, adults admitted during the pandemic had significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression, emotional dysregulation, and disability (P < .001 for all) as well as nightmares (P = .013) compared to those admitted prior to the pandemic.

Among adolescents, measures of anxiety, depression, and sleep quality were significantly higher at admission during the pandemic compared to prior to the pandemic (P = .005, P = .005, and P = .011, respectively)

Reasons for the increase in symptom severity remain unclear, but include the possibility that individuals with preexisting mental illness simply became more ill; or that individuals with symptoms delayed hospital admission out of fear of exposure to COVID-19, which resulted in more severe symptoms at admission, the researchers wrote in their discussion.

The findings were limited by several factors, including the primarily White population and the reliance on self-reports, the researchers noted. Another limitation was the lack of differentiation between patients who may have had COVID-19 before hospitalization and those who did not, so the researchers could not determine whether the virus itself played a biological role in symptom severity.

However, the results support data from previous studies and identify increased psychiatry symptom severity for patients admitted for inpatient psychiatry care during the pandemic, they said. Although resources are scarce, the findings emphasize that mental health needs, especially for those with preexisting conditions, should not be overlooked, and continuity and expansion of access to mental health care for all should be prioritized, they concluded.

The study was supported by The Menninger Clinic and The Menninger Clinic Foundation. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose.

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