In the largest study of COVID-19 and mental health to date, researchers from the Veterans Administration and Washington University in St. Louis found that COVID-19 survivors had a 35% higher risk of developing anxiety, 39% for depression, 41% for sleep disorders, and 80% for neurocognitive decline, or “brain fog,” in layman’s terms. Antidepressant use increased proportionally, as well as the likelihood of opioid usage (a 76% increase in risk!) and thus substance abuse. Even when compared to the typical negative mental effects of ordinary sickness or hospitalization, COVID-19 had a significantly greater impact, suggesting that the study’s results were unique to COVID. This side effect of the virus is hypothesized to be a direct result of the virus’s influence on the brain. The study examined 153,848 COVID-19 patients from March 1, 2020, to January 15, 2021, and compared the data with more than 5.6 million COVID-free people. The sample size was relatively diverse, containing a sizable number of women, African Americans, and people of different ages. Granted, this study was conducted before the large-scale introduction of the vaccine and the Delta and Omicron waves.
Even so, this study demonstrates, with little room for doubt, just how dire this country’s situation is. The previous posts have mainly focused on the stress caused by the effects of the pandemic, but the virus itself has an incredible impact on mental health, and this discovery was made only very recently. Obviously, one way to circumvent this issue is to help prevent infections – by wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Of course, these measures cannot possibly prevent all infections, even if everyone follows them, so we must be prepared to deal with the inevitable mental health fallout from COVID-19 cases. As I have said time and time again, the mental health pandemic is possibly one of the greatest threats this country has faced, and yet it continues to worsen and languish in relative obscurity. The day that this issue is brought into the limelight will hopefully be the day that we start to fight back against the enemy right under our noses.