Nearly 1 in 5 coronavirus patients are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder - but could Covid cause mental illness?

Almost one in five people who are infected with Covid-19 are later diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, a new study has found.

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Coronavirus patients have reported symptoms including anxiety, depression and insomnia within three months of testing positive for the virus, suggesting further action is needed to mitigate the toll of the pandemic on mental health.

Further investigation needed

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford and NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre, analysed 69 million electronic health records in the US, including 62,000 cases of Covid-19.

Results found that anxiety, depression and insomnia were the most commonly developed problems, while also identifying that people with a pre-existing mental health diagnosis were 65 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with coronavirus than those without.

This includes accounting for other known risk factors, such as age, sex, race and underlying physical conditions.

To examine whether the excess risk was directly associated with Covid-19, researchers compared data with six other conditions over the same period, including influenza, other respiratory tract infections, a skin infection, gallstones, urinary tract stones, and the fracture of a large bone.

In the three months after Covid-19 diagnosis, 5.8 per cent of patients recorded their first diagnosis of psychiatric illness, which was almost double that of those in the comparison groups.

However, Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford, said more research was needed to establish whether a diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder could be directly linked to contracting coronavirus.

Factors that influence physical health - including smoking and socio-economic background - were not captured in the analysis, while there was also potential that the general stressful environment of the pandemic may also play a role.

Is mental illness an added risk?

Dr Max Taquet, a researcher who conducted the analyses, said having a psychiatric disorder should be added to the risk factors for Covid-19.

Researchers claim that those with a history of mental illness are more likely to relapse, or receive another psychiatric diagnosis, if they contract the virus.

Dr Taquet added that it is still unclear how much circumstantial factors, such as having to self-isolate for weeks alone, play in triggering a mental disorder, but the unexpected finding needs further investigation.

Research suggests that people from poorer socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to suffer mental ill-health, and are at increased risk of exposure to coronavirus, due to factors like over-crowded housing.

Studies investigating the impact of the virus on the brain and the central nervous system are still underway, with researchers stating that only time will tell as to whether the incidence of psychiatric illness post-Covid-19 will continue to rise, or persist beyond the three month period.