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What we know about the mental health implications of ‘long COVID’

The term ‘long COVID’ first originated in online communities. The people discussing it had been diagnosed with COVID-19 at some point in 2020, and were still experiencing symptoms months later. They felt dismissed by their doctors, as though they were overreacting to a ‘mild’ illness. However, there is increasing evidence that long COVID is a distinct syndrome, which stems from a dysfunctional immune inflammatory response.

The standard recovery time from COVID-19

Most people make a full recovery from COVID-19. In non-hospitalised patients, two thirds are symptom-free by 14 days after the infection, and 90% are symptom-free by 21 days. After 21 days, 10% of patients experience either persistent or relapsing and remitting symptoms, including:

  • A cough
  • A fever
  • A sore throat
  • Breathlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Nonspecific chest pain (lung burn)
  • Cognitive blunting (brain fog)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Skin rashes
  • Diarrhoea

The evidence around long COVID’s impact on mental health

A study of 236,379 adults, monitored for six months after receiving a COVID-19 diagnosis, has shown that 24% had experienced a mood, anxiety or psychotic disorder. This was the first diagnosis of such a disorder in 8.6% of patients.

Of these 236,379 Covid-19 survivors:

  • 18% had an anxiety disorder
  • 13.6% had a mood disorder
  • 17.4% had an anxiety disorder
  • 5.4% had insomnia

Among the people who needed treatment in an intensive therapy unit (ITU), 28% had a diagnosis of a mood or anxiety disorder or a psychotic illness. This was a first diagnosis in 12.7% of patients.

These psychiatric disorders result from a combination of the effects of the immune disturbance caused by the virus, the brain toxicity of the virus and the psychological trauma.
The psychological symptoms include:

  • Stress from enduring a potential fatal disease
  • Fear of illness
  • Uncertainty about the future
  • Stigma of having the illness
  • Traumatic memories of severe illness and social isolation

How long COVID is affecting people’s quality of life

The physical symptoms of long COVID mean that some people have had to adjust to a different way of life.

Many of those suffering from long COVID have found that they feel completely cut off from the world, unable to take pleasure from activities they once enjoyed, frightened of what their future holds and unsure of whether they’ll ever be able to return to their previous way of life.

As with any mental health challenges, many have also become unable to cope with their day-to-day routine, finding it difficult to manage their responsibilities or do their job as they once were able to do.

Treatment for mental health conditions

If you’ve been left struggling to cope after being diagnosed with COVID-19, we can help. At Priory, we provide high-quality mental health treatment for a range of conditions, such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.

We offer treatment programmes in a range of formats, including outpatient therapy, which usually consists of weekly one-hour appointments. We also have day and half-day treatment programmes, allowing you to benefit from ongoing structured support, as well as inpatient programmes. Our residential option gives you the opportunity to focus on your mental health within a supportive community of people going through the same recovery journey, with access to 24-hour support from experienced specialists. We also offer online therapy with Priory Connect, connecting you with a specialist over video appointments so that you can access treatment from the comfort of your own home.

Blog reviewed by Dr Leon Rozewicz (MBBS, FRCPsych, MRCGP, MRCPsych), Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Director of Priory Hospital North London

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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