“People have been worried that COVID-19 survivors will be at greater risk of mental health problems, and our findings … show this to be likely,” Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at Britain’s Oxford University, told Reuters.
Researchers from the University of Oxford examined anonymised electronic health records of over 69 million U.S. patients, 62,354 of which were diagnosed with coronavirus from late January to August 1. Findings were published on Monday in The Lancet Psychiatry.
“Adverse mental health consequences of COVID-19, including anxiety and depression, have been widely predicted but not yet accurately measured,” study authors wrote, adding that “reliable estimation…requires large, well-controlled cohort studies.”
The team set out to find whether a coronavirus diagnosis was associated with higher rates of mental illness diagnoses thereafter. They were also interested in finding whether patients with a history of mental illness were at a higher risk of a COVID-19 diagnosis.
The team found that a coronavirus diagnosis was indeed linked to an 18% higher chance of a any psychiatric diagnosis within 90 days. A coronavirus diagnosis in particular outweighed six other health problems — including the flu, other respiratory tract infections and kidney stones — in terms of incurring a first-time mental diagnosis.
The patients in the study had a higher chance of diagnoses for anxiety, depression and insomnia, study authors wrote, while also noting an increased risk of a dementia diagnosis, which signals a deterioration in brain functions like memory and thinking.
The findings were upheld even after the team accounted for health issues that are known to heighten the risk for coronavirus, though socioeconomic factors may have played a role in the results, per the study.
“Although preliminary, our findings have implications for clinical services, and prospective cohort studies are warranted,” study authors wrote.