Researchers begin to quantify the repercussions of COVID-19 on mental health
For months, experts have warned of the potential for lasting impacts beyond the novel coronavirus stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Job loss, extended isolation, and anxiety were cited as the main culprits in creating a potential mental health crisis as a direct result.
Now, researchers are beginning to look into the specific fallout, as social restrictions begin to ease. A new Danish review of 43 scientific articles was produced by researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the Mental Health Centre Copenhagen, Mental Health Services in the Capital Region of Denmark.
Of the 43 studies, 20 looked specifically at the toll the pandemic has taken on healthcare workers. Not surprisingly, levels of anxiety and depression have increased, while quality of life and both quality and quantity of sleep have declined. The remaining 23 studies included 19 looking specifically at the health effects on the general population, with generally negative consequences.
Perhaps the two most interesting studies looked directly at patients who’ve survived COVID-19 after hospitalization. A whopping 96 percent of these people exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress, coupled with an increased risk of developing depression following their hospital stay.
“It is known from the previous SARS epidemic in 2002-2003, also called the bird flu, that mental health was affected among patients who survived the disease and among healthcare professionals treating the patients,” said professor Michael Eriksen Benros at the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the University of Copenhagen and the Mental Health Centre Copenhagen.
“Our recently published article systematically reviews current knowledge on symptoms among healthcare professionals and patients, and the same appears to be the case for the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Researchers quickly pointed out that the studies evaluated are of varying depths of qualities. Everything from drug approvals to potential vaccine developments have been hastened during COVID-19, and the publication of relevant studies are no exception. Therefore, the research community quickly clarified the need for further investigation into a topic that is sure to shape the decade of the 2020s in healthcare.
“We need more high-quality studies to make any final conclusions about a link between mental symptoms and COVID-19,” clarified Ph.D. student and first author Nina Vindegaard Sørensen of the University of Copenhagen. “However, our results indicate that COVID-19 may have an impact on the brain of those infected and that there are derived effects of the pandemic on the mental health among both healthcare professionals and the population. Given that the previous SARS epidemic was also associated with mental symptoms, we believe that research in this area is extremely important, as knowledge is a prerequisite for dealing with any mental consequences of COVID-19.”
Of course, any sort of discussion that places COVID-19 in the past tense is dangerous, as many areas are still dealing with a significant outbreak. The pandemic won’t be considered ‘controlled’ until we have a vaccine, which could take an undetermined period of time. However, experts are beginning to assess those mental health services that will be most important in the pandemic’s wake.
The unforeseen outcome as it pertains to the healthcare field – an increase in telehealth capabilities – could be a lifesaver in the months and years to come, as psychiatrists and social work professionals see their abilities to see and treat patients increase. In many fields, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) are reimbursing telehealth at the same rate as in-person treatment during the pandemic. Could that change in the future? Quite possibly, but if professionals are able to demonstrate the positive effects of increased access, CMS would be risking a highly unpopular and possibly detrimental decision by reversing course.
Online resources for mental health are ever-increasing, giving patients a place to turn even during times of social isolation. While the lasting effects of COVID-19 remain to be seen, ironically, the pandemic may have indirectly created the very resources that will save countless patients with mental health issues in its wake.
SOURCES: Scientific American, Medical XPress