Covid-19 survivors who were treated in hospital show higher rate of psychiatric disorders

  • More than 50% of Covid-19 survivors were found to be suffering from mental illness a month after being discharged from hospital
  • These conditions include PTSD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia
  • The researchers are advocating for the screening of Covid-19 survivors for these disorders

The Covid-19 pandemic has been extraordinarily stressful for millions of people around the world – and in the midst of all the fear and uncertainty, we’re seeing a historic rise in mental health conditions. 

A new study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, found that more than half of Covid-19 survivors who received hospital treatment were experiencing symptoms of at least one of the following mental disorders a month post-discharge: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, insomnia, depression or compulsive symptoms.

Anxiety and insomnia most prevalent

The team of experts from San Raffaele hospital in Milan carried out the study by monitoring 402 patients after being treated for Covid-19. This was done via clinical interviews and self-assessment questionnaires.

Results indicate that 55% of these patients were found to have at least one psychiatric disorder. The detailed results for the cases were:

  • PTSD (28%)
  • Depression (31%)
  • Anxiety (42%)
  • Insomnia (40%)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) (20%)

A total of 265 men and 137 women were included in the study, and the women were found to suffer more than men, scoring higher in all the conditions, the researchers wrote.

Findings not unique to current pandemic

The discoveries of this latest study are not unique to the Covid-19 pandemic. Stellenbosch University’s Dr Georgina Spies – who is leading the South African part of the current global COH-FIT study measuring the impact of the pandemic on physical and mental health worldwide – referred to the 2003 SARS outbreak as a “mental health catastrophe”.

Spies added that according to research, 30 months after the outbreak PTSD was the most prevalent long-term psychiatric condition, followed by depressive disorders. The researchers of the new study said their findings mirrored those from previous studies of coronavirus outbreaks, including SARS, where psychiatric morbidities ranged from 10% to 35% in the post-illness stage.

The new research also supports previous studies such as a study from Wuhan, China, in which more than 700 Covid-19 patients were given a standardised test for PTSD symptoms. 

"Over 96% of those respondents indicated they were suffering from post-traumatic stress," Dr David Shulkin, a former secretary of Veterans Affairs and former president and CEO of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, told HealthDay. "I do think this is something we have to give serious evaluation to and make sure we are addressing these issues."

With the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), however, PTSD has become much more widespread than during the 2003 outbreak, which leads experts to believe that other mental health consequences might also be more severe this time round.

South Africans already battling anxiety, stress, depression

Earlier this year, Health24 reported that before the national lockdown was implemented on March 27, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) received on average around 600 calls per day, but that in April alone, the organisation received more than double this number every day.

SADAG also reported that during lockdown, callers have been battling anxiety and panic; financial stress and pressure; depression; poor family relations; suicidal thoughts; and substance abuse.

The American Heart Foundation references predictions by The Well Being Trust – a foundation that focuses on mental health issues – that the Covid-19 pandemic could cause 75 000 "deaths of despair" from suicide or addiction.

Clinicians to assess Covid-19 survivors 

“PTSD, major depression, and anxiety are all high-burden non-communicable conditions associated with years of life lived with disability,” the research team wrote, also noting that their findings were consistent with previous epidemiological studies. Patients with previous positive psychiatric diagnoses also suffered more than those without a history of psychiatric disorders.

These psychiatric effects, they explained, could be caused “by the immune response to the virus itself, or by psychological stressors such as social isolation; the psychological impact of a novel severe and potentially fatal illness; concerns about infecting others; and stigma.”

For this reason, they strongly recommend that clinicians assess the psychopathology of Covid-19 survivors.

If you're feeling anxious or depressed and feel you need help, you can reach SADAG on their 24-hour helpline: 0800 456 789.

For a suicide emergency, dial 0800 567 567. 

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