LONDON — The detrimental physical effects of a COVID-19 infection are well documented, but troubling new research suggests symptomatic people often extract a heavy mental toll as well. Scientists at King’s College London report experiencing any COVID symptoms is associated with both worse mental health and lower life satisfaction.
Conducted as part of study on COVID in the United Kingdom, this project also included researchers from University College London and several additional British institutions. Initially, the research team set out to gauge the impact of the disease on mental health and wellbeing post-infection and recovery. To that end, study authors collected data from 11 longitudinal studies published between April 2020 and April 2021. That dataset ended up including a total of 54,442 participants with and without self-reported COVID-19.
A clear trend emerged during the data analysis. Increases in psychological distress, depression, anxiety, and lower life satisfaction were associated with prior self-reported COVID-19. Even worse, poor mental health associations did not decline over time post-infection. This highlights the potential long-term, lingering impact of COVID-19 in many people, emphasizing the need for a longer follow-up process from healthcare providers.
The data tells us COVID-19 is consistently associated with psychological distress, even if the individual did not formally test positive for antibodies. Study authors note infection effects were felt similarly in different groups of gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic circumstances.
“These findings suggest that there were prolonged mental health consequences of COVID-19 infection for some people at the beginning of this pandemic. Understanding why this is the case will be key to finding treatment strategies for those affected as well as preventing such effects in future pandemic waves,” says joint first study author Dr. Ellen Thompson of KCL in a statement.
Additionally, this work indicates COVID-19 infection may be especially harmful to mental health among older individuals. Those with self-reported infection aged 50 years or older displayed a notably stronger association with poor mental health.
This specific trend is likely linked to a number of factors; older individuals tend to experience more severe COVID-19 symptoms, are often more worried about infection in the first place, and face an increased risk of blood vessel or brain changes after infection. Interestingly, this finding contradicts previous studies that had focused on the effects of the pandemic in general on mental health. Those projects had concluded women and adults between the ages of 25 and 44 have dealt with the greatest adverse impacts.
“This study brings together many of the UK’s longitudinal studies to provide a comprehensive overview of the impacts of COVID-19 infection on population mental health. Compared to most studies to-date that have focussed on more severe and hospitalized cases, this study demonstrates the impact of infection during a pandemic on overall population mental health and wellbeing,” concludes senior study author Prof. Praveetha Patalay from University College London.
The study is published in The Lancet Psychiatry.