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Harvard Study Reveals Alarming Link Between Psychological Distress and Long-COVID

Written by Anusha Srinivasan '24

Edited by Surya Khatri '24

Image depicting Long-COVID from University of Minnesota [4]


A recent study in the Harvard T. H. Chan School School of Public Health indicates that psychological distress may increase risk of developing long-COVID. It is well known that mental health is correlated with physical health, increasing the severity of various diseases. Mental health conditions have been associated with longer-lasting symptoms for the flu and other respiratory illnesses [3]. It comes as no surprise, then, that poor mental health would worsen symptoms of COVID-19. However, this study revealed a surprising link between declining mental health and a less well-understood condition: long-COVID.


According to the CDC, long-COVID entails a variety of health problems lasting weeks, months, or even years after a COVID infection. Anyone who has been infected with the virus is susceptible to long-COVID, though it is more common in those with severe illness. The symptoms of long-COVID vary greatly between patients. A few common symptoms include tiredness and fatigue, difficulty breathing, and even an interesting condition called “post-exertional malaise”. This means that those suffering from long-COVID may experience increased severity of symptoms after physical or mental effort. The effects of long-COVID do not end there - there are several neurological issues which have also been reported. These issues include perpetual brain fog, depression and anxiety, dizziness, and sleep problems [2].


It isn’t new information that some people are more likely than others to develop long COVID. Those who have experienced severe COVID-19 illness, those who were hospitalized or needed intensive care, those who had underlying health conditions, or did not get a COVID-19 vaccine are far more likely to develop long-COVID [3].


This particular study enrolled over 50 thousand people in April 2020, before any had been infected with COVID-19. When they were enrolled, participants were asked about their psychological distress. After a year, more than three thousand of these participants contracted COVID-19. Researchers found that those who experienced distress before COVID-19 infection showed a 32-46% increased risk for long COVID and a 15-51% risk of daily life impairment as a result. These risk factors included depression, anxiety, worry, perceived stress, and loneliness and were even more closely correlated with increases in long-COVID than physical health factors like obesity, asthma or hypertension [3].

These new findings come with an unfortunate realization - the isolation and stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may only be exacerbating the severity of long-COVID. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in the first year of the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression increased by a startling 25 percent. Anxiety and depression were fueled by isolation, deaths in the family, and financial worries, among a number of other factors. Healthcare workers in particular experienced extreme distress, with exhaustion triggering depression and higher rates of suicidal thoughts [1].


With the pandemic inducing unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression, it seems that long-COVID is an imminent threat for many. As the world navigates this ongoing health crisis, it is crucial to prioritize both physical and mental health to combat the severity of COVID-19's long-term effects.

 

References

[1] Covid-19: Depression, anxiety soared 25 per cent in a year | UN news. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/03/1113162

[2] Long Covid or post-covid conditions. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/long-term-effects/index.html

[3] Psychological distress before COVID-19 infection increases risk of long COVID. (2022, September 07). Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/09/220907133228.htm

[4] Talking long covid with U of M. (2023, March 09). Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://twin-cities.umn.edu/news-events/talking-long-covid-u-m



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