COVID-19 (coronavirus) Mental health

The intersection between COVID-19 and mental health

Dr. Levitt looking into the camera

As we mark the second year of the pandemic, COVID-19 remains an intense area of study. Some ongoing research is now shedding light on the intersection between COVID and certain mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. Dr. Anthony Levitt, chief of Sunnybrook’s Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program, discussed what we know to date at the latest Speaker Series: Maintaining Wellness During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Do depression or anxiety impact the risk of contracting COVID?

There have been several studies looking at this question. One analyzed the electronic health records of 61 million Americans and found there was a dramatically increased risk of contracting COVID for people with the four mental health disorders they included in their analysis: depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder. If these conditions were recently diagnosed, people were five to seven times more likely to contract COVID during the early stages of the pandemic.

A second study found people with depression or anxiety had a small increased risk of contracting COVID if diagnosed later in life, and that risk increased for people with both conditions. Also, people with Alzheimer’s dementia appear to have a dramatically increased risk for contracting COVID.

There are several theories around why people with mental illness appear to be more likely to contract COVID. The immune system could be negatively impacted by older age, some mental health conditions and their associated treatments. Mental illness can also affect decision making, making it more difficult to navigate risk exposure.

Do depression or anxiety affect the outcome of infection with COVID?

Yes, it does appear that people who have both depression and anxiety experience worse outcomes from COVID infection. This was the conclusion of one study in particular. We still don’t know the exact reasons why, but there could be some link to the immune system at play. Additional research is needed to shed more light on this question.

Does COVID increase the risk of an episode of depression or anxiety?

One study completed by a Sunnybrook team found that after people had tested positive for COVID, there was an increased incidence of depression, cannabis use, opioid use, alcohol misuse and anxiety.

This study is still underway during the current wave of COVID. Researchers are hoping to determine if the same holds true throughout this stage of the pandemic.

Does having depression or anxiety affect a person’s willingness to receive COVID vaccination?

Part of this Sunnybrook study looked at vaccine readiness. In January 2021, 76 per cent of people in the study were ready to get their vaccines, 15 per cent were hesitant and 7 per cent were resistant.

This study found people were more willing to get vaccinated if they had anxiety and depression. Other factors that led to wanting to get vaccinated included older age and having a higher socioeconomic status.

Have studies shown any silver linings resulting from the pandemic?

This question was also asked as part of the Sunnybrook study referenced earlier. Surprisingly, up to 60 per cent of people identified a silver lining from the pandemic. Specifically, many people said they felt more fortunate, healthy and successful. Those people who felt they were less successful, resilient and fortunate had a much higher incidence of depression and anxiety.

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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