Difficulty breathing, the loss of taste and smell, an overall weakness ― those are physical symptoms of a COVID-19 infection that everyone has heard about after more than a year of the corona-pandemic. Caroline, a doctor from Cologne, Germany, was aware of the risks the virus posed as well. But she worried more about the elderly people close to her, or those for whom the illness would be likely to take a more severe course.
“I thought ‘I’m young, I don’t have any preconditions, I’m athletic ― if I get it, it probably won’t be that bad,’” the 39-year-old, who wants to be referred to by her first name only, told DW. “I personally wasn’t all that afraid of catching it.”
When she did get COVID in January 2021, it first looked like Caroline had been right. The illness didn’t initially present with severe symptoms. A slightly elevated temperature, mild headaches, a scratchy throat, that was it. What she hadn’t expected were the panic attacks and depression.
One in three COVID-patients have neurological or psychiatric conditions
A new study from the University of Oxford found that people like Caroline aren’t alone. Far from it, actually: Researchers went through electronic health records of more than 236,000 COVID-19 patients mostly from the US and found that one in three, or 34 percent, had been diagnosed with a psychiatric or neurological condition within six months of being infected with coronavirus.
Neurological conditions like stroke and dementia were rare, but 17 percent of COVID-patients were diagnosed with anxiety disorders and 14 percent with mood disorders like depression. The Oxford researchers also looked at two control groups of patients with influenza and patients with any respiratory tract infection (except for COVID) to make sure their numbers didn’t just reflect the experience of the general public living through a pandemic.
“Our data really draw attention to the scale of the problem,” the study’s lead author Paul Harrison from the University of Oxford told DW. “This highlights the idea that COVID has consequences for people, even if they… don’t go to the hospital.”
‘I thought I was having a stroke’
Caroline was never hospitalized but struggled severely with mental health issues during and after her COVID infection. It started with the diagnosis. She had driven to a test center in a dark parking garage in Cologne alone, fully expecting to test negative, merely as a precaution before interacting with patients at work. When her results came back positive, “it was a shock. It threw me for a loop,” the doctor recounted.
From there on it got worse. Despite her physical symptoms not being bad, “I really struggled psychologically,” Caroline said. She was the only one in her family to catch the virus and had to isolate completely from her husband and children. She couldn’t fall asleep without sleeping pills and said she turned into a generally more fearful and depressed person that she had been before.
“I kept thinking ‘You have an illness from which all these people are dying,’” the 39-year-old said. “I would frequently wake up at night and go into a panic. I thought I was having a stroke, couldn’t move and was stuck in this world between dream and reality. I had never had these panic attacks before.”
‘COVID-19 caused my anxiety to come to a peak’
Lawrence, who wants to be referred to by his first name only, had never struggled with mental health issues before the pandemic, either. Once COVID-19 started spreading in the US, the 29-year-old from Virginia began experiencing anxiety, but “it was still manageable at this point,” he told DW.
Then his mother-in-law died of COVID and in December 2020, Lawrence and his husband caught the virus as well. Initially the 29-year-old’s symptoms weren’t too bad, but eventually the virus affected his lungs, “and since I have asthma it started to take hold.”
“When my breathing became more difficult, I began to have panic attacks, which I had never had before,” Lawrence said.
He suffered from anxiety as well and couldn’t focus on his work anymore. After a month of struggling, Lawrence finally saw a doctor, who prescribed anti-anxiety medication.
“While I cannot say whether it was directly related, COVID-19 caused my anxiety to come to a peak, to the point where I decided I needed to seek medical help,” he said.
Caroline, who found support from her sister, a psychologist, couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason for her anxiety either. “I’m not sure whether it was caused by the general situation ― quarantine, how I got the diagnosis and all the media coverage,” she said. “Or whether it was caused by the illness itself.”
Another reason to take COVID seriously
Harrison, the Oxford professor at the helm of the new study, said that “both explanations are quite possible.”
“For anxiety and depression, dealing with the stress of knowing you got COVID, having to isolate, worrying about your job, your future, your health ― that’s the most likely explanation for those diagnoses.”
The theory that external circumstances are mostly to blame for mental health conditions in COVID-patients is somewhat confirmed by another of Harrison’s findings, namely, that there was no significant difference in the number of people with anxiety and depression between patients with mild COVID, those who had to go to the hospital and those who had to be placed in intensive care units.
Either way: Harrison said the possible mental health consequences are yet another reason to be vigilant about precautions and to “avoid COVID by any means you can.”
“Take the vaccine you’re offered,” Harrison implored. “The risks of the vaccine to my knowledge are infinitely smaller compared to the risks of COVID. And if you’re… told to isolate, I would suggest you do what you’re told. We would all be better off.”
COVID and mental health: ‘I really struggled psychologically’ Wire Services/ Deutsche Welle.