New research suggests the virus may significantly increase chances of developing a psychiatric disorder…

Many South Africans will be aware that the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic, the earlier lockdown and ongoing restrictions associated with it can potentially have an impact on mental wellness and may have been advised on what they could do to mitigate it.

But what of those who are actually infected by the virus; can the infection have an impact on the brain and result in mental conditions such as depression?

Mental health practitioners observed a possible link

Dr Marshinee Naidoo, a psychiatrist who practises at Akeso Alberton mental health facility in Johannesburg, says that mental health practitioners have for some time suspected that there may be a link.

They believe that the novel coronavirus could lead to the development of mental health problems in individuals.

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The latest medical studies now appear to be confirming it. Medical science has shown that Covid-19 is not necessarily just a respiratory illness but that the disease also often impacts other organs, including the brain.

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How does Covid-19 impact the brain?

“There is much about the virus and its behaviour that is as yet unknown, and researchers are still working to establish exactly how Covid-19 may impact the mind and functioning of the brain. However, this new research suggests that people who have been ill with Covid-19 had a significant chance of developing a psychiatric disorder while battling the infection and even after recovering,” she says.

Depression, anxiety, dementia noted

According to Dr Naidoo, a recent study published in The Lancet medical journal in November 2020, found that 18 percent of Covid-19 patients developed a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, or dementia, within three months of diagnosis.

They also had double the risk of those individuals who did not contract the virus.1 A recent survey from Ecuador, meanwhile, suggests that people diagnosed with Covid-19 commonly experience depression, anxiety, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder.2

“There is growing evidence that Covid-19 can affect the brain and mind of some individuals, increasing the risk of a range of psychiatric illnesses,” comments Dr Naidoo.

Some adults who battled Covid-19 developed a psychiatric disorder for the first time ever

The Lancet study, which evaluated the health records of more than 62 000 people diagnosed with Covid-19 in the United States, suggests that nearly 6% of adults diagnosed with Covid-19 developed a psychiatric disorder, for the first time ever, within 90 days.

Long COVID: Who is at risk of experiencing long-lasting symptoms?

Long term symptoms of Covid-19

“Many Covid-19 patients, known as the ‘long haulers’, may have a range of debilitating physical symptoms that can last for many months and severely impact their daily lives. This can place additional stressors on them, including difficulties returning to their normal activities such as work, or child-minding,” adds Dr Naidoo.

“In addition to the isolation involved, Covid-19 diagnosis and treatment are more likely to be traumatic than it is for many other medical conditions, due to the potential severity of the illness and the lack of certainty regarding its treatment and outcome.”

According to Dr Naidoo, all of these factors mean that infection can potentially have a considerable impact on the mental health of the individual who is battling Covid-19.

How does the virus interact with the brain and nervous system?

“Indeed, some studies show that Covid-19 patients frequently experience neurological complications, such as dizziness, confusion, delirium and other cognitive problems. A person’s sleep patterns can also be affected. This may in turn lead to insomnia, and develop into depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders,” notes Dr Naidoo.

Healthy diet and sleep schedule are essential to recovery

Dr Naidoo says that if you develop Covid-19, it is critical to follow your doctor’s advice and ensure that you take care of your physical health.

“Maintaining a healthy diet and sleep schedule, and as far as possible trying to stay physically active, can also assist in supporting mental health.”

“You can also try relaxation techniques, such as mindful meditation and deep breathing. Also remember that recovery from Covid-19 can take weeks and, in some cases, even months. Understanding this can assist to reduce anxiety and assist in supporting your mental health,” she concludes.

References and further reading

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.