As the pandemic nears the 21-month mark, we’re hearing from more and more COVID-19 survivors that the virus’ impact can last beyond the first few weeks of symptoms. For some patients, COVID-19 has a long-term, far-reaching effect on their daily lives, impacting them physically, cognitively, and even emotionally - this is what’s being called “long-haul COVID”, “post-acute COVID” or just “long COVID”.
Research shows that about 10% of those who’ve had COVID-19 get long COVID. The odds go up to 22% for those 70 or older. Experts don’t yet know exactly why people get long COVID, although many now believe that it’s not caused by just one thing; that there are multiple diseases happening. One thing we do know are its symptoms. People with long COVID may experience joint pain, headache, stomach cramps, a pins-and-needles feeling, heart palpitations, and more. One study found that even after 100 days, patients still reported fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of memory, concentration difficulties, and sleep disorders.
Long COVID also appears to impact mental health - studies show that about 1/3 of those who experience long COVID also develop a mental health issue - primarily depression or anxiety disorders. In this article, we discuss what the latest research says about long COVID’s impact on mental health and what can be done to address it.
Multiple explanations exist for the link between long COVID and mental health
Scientists now know that in general, COVID-19 isn't just a respiratory illness, but a disease that affects many critical organs, including the brain. COVID-19 patients often experience neurological complications, such as confusion, delirium, and other cognitive impairments - which may help explain some of the psychological effects of the disease.
In addition, patients living with long COVID may be unable to exercise, socialize, or work - or otherwise live their lives as before. They may be battling feelings of hopelessness and fear that COVID could affect the rest of their lives. All of this can have a significant impact on emotional well-being. Some patients may have spent long periods of time in the hospital and/or in the ICU, which can be deeply stressful or even traumatizing.
Echoing this, researchers at University College London interviewed Long COVID patients and found five “themes” which influenced their mental well-being, including: the availability (or lack of availability) of care and understanding from others, perceived lack of treatment options, disruption to ordinary living caused by their symptoms, the lack of clarity about the outcome of their illness, and the changes it caused to their identity
How can we address the mental health impacts of long COVID?
As with most mental health disorders, the first place to turn is to a qualified mental health professional. The American Psychological Association reports that many existing psychological and behavioral therapies — like talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), group therapy, and peer support, for example — seem to be effective treatments for aspects of long COVID’s psychological symptoms.
Family members and friends should be validating and supportive when Long COVID patients report psychological symptoms. The University College London research mentioned above found that, as expected, people who felt supported and cared for by their social network and by health professionals were less anxious or depressed than those who did not.
Interestingly, treating the mental health symptoms of long COVID can also help alleviate some of the physical symptoms, as long COVID has a bidirectional association with physical and mental health. In other words, the ‘mind-body relationship’ may be driving some symptoms, and so addressing them on multiple fronts can be highly effective in reducing their impact.
If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of long COVID or showing signs of anxiety or depression, consider consulting a behavioral health professional
If you’re a client, request an appointment online or call our live support for assistance in scheduling care today. Our mental health professionals understand the link between COVID-19 and mental health. If you’re a behavioral health provider looking to join our network, see all the benefits and learn how to apply here.