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Wash U study shows higher rates of depression, anxiety in COVID-19 survivors

More than 1,000 people in the bi-state St. Louis region and nearly that many across Missouri have died of COVID-19 as of this week. 061920
Kristen Radtke for NPR
A study from Washington University and the Department of Veterans Affairs finds that people who tested positive for the coronavirus are more likely to report mental health problems, and those who were hospitalized report symptoms of depression, anxiety and other health issues at higher rates.

People who have tested positive for the coronavirus are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, even after they recover, according to a study from researchers at Washington University and the St. Louis Department of Veterans Affairs.

Using a database of VA patients, researchers compared the records of more than 150,000 people who tested positive for the virus to records of millions of patients who did not. They found that during the pandemic, those who had COVID-19 were 60% more likely to report symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress, substance use disorder or other mental health issues.

“More than 75 million people in the U.S. have had COVID-19,” said senior author Ziyad Al-Aly, an epidemiologist at Washington University and the St. Louis Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care System. “I think that we need to devote a little more effort and conversation to the long-term consequences.”

Al-Aly has studied the long-term effects of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. He said many people have experienced depression and stress since the pandemic began, even those who have not tested positive for the virus. That's why researchers sought to determine if those who caught the virus were more prone to develop mental health problems.

It’s possible that COVID-19 can change people’s brains, making them more likely to develop mental health conditions, he said. Because the virus is new, the exact way it affects the brain is unclear, but preliminary studies show the coronavirus can affect how nerves in the brain send messages to each other. Other studies show it can cause inflammation, which could cause or exacerbate mental health problems.

Isolation and other factors also could play a role in why mental health conditions are higher among COVID-19 survivors, Al-Aly said. Such problems showed up in COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized and those who were not, but those who were hospitalized with a severe case of the disease were more likely to report mental health problems.

The study’s authors said people who were more likely to catch the coronavirus, such as those who work in face-to-face service jobs, also could have been at risk of mental health problems to begin with, because they’re struggling financially or don’t have a safe place to live. To get a clearer picture, they controlled for socioeconomic factors, Al-Aly said.

The findings are important as the public and government officials talk about an “end” to the coronavirus pandemic, he said. Like a natural disaster, the effects of the past two years could stretch well into the future.

“The earth will stop shaking, and you say the earthquake is over,” Al-Aly said. “But what resulted from the earthquake is really oftentimes far more profoundly consequential in people’s lives than the two seconds or two minutes that the earth is shaking."

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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