Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): lockdowns and measures of social distancing have caused a pandemic in the pandemic, that of mental health problems, especially among lonely people but also among perfectly integrated young people. There is no mystery about this: isolation, distance of loved ones, economic uncertainty are the obvious reasons that contribute to this problem.
However, a group of researchers has tried to answer a more specific and compelling question: does COVID-19, in itself and net of all the practical and existential difficulties it creates, cause mental health problems?
Using data from 69 million people in America, Oxford University researchers compared the mental conditions of people diagnosed with COVID-19 with those suffering from various health problems, such as the flu or other respiratory infections. By excluding healthy people from the research, they avoided the risk that statistically excess disorders could be attributed simply to being sick.
“We know that when people are ill, in general, they are more likely to develop mental health problems,” says Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford, lead author of the study that came out. “But we wanted to find out if there is anything specific about COVID-19 that makes that risk greater than with another similar disease, and we found that it is.”
Of the 62,000 people observed who were diagnosed with COVID-19, one in five received a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, or insomnia following the disease. Some had previously had a psychiatric diagnosis for one of these conditions, but 1 in 20 patients had mental health problems for the first time in their life following infection with the new coronavirus.
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In essence, the study’s COVID-19 sufferers are twice as likely as others to have one of these psychiatric diagnoses. Hospitalization with COVID-19 also carries a much higher risk, but even the mild form of the disease has been associated with the development of mental health problems in the three months following diagnosis.
The researchers – but this is obviously an observation closely linked to the States – have noticed a significant deterioration starting on April 1, 2020, when the death toll of the American coronavirus exceeded that of the Vietnam war. This of course cannot be due to a worsening of the virus, which was always the same, but to contextual factors such as the fear of being hospitalized knowing that the health services were already overwhelmed.
But even if there is a link between COVID-19 and psychiatric disorders, what mechanism might be behind it? “There are certainly viruses that infect our brains and cause very serious problems, even death. But many common viruses do no such thing. The honest answer is that we don’t yet know what the case is with COVID-19, “says Harrison.” In addition to the stress related to personal and economic problems, there may be biological mechanisms. The disease could trigger an immune reaction, for example. And we know that the immune response can sometimes involve the brain and affect how we feel. ”