Mental Health Issues Like Depression, PTSD and Substance Abuse Can Manifest Post COVID Recovery, Explains Expert

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As we reach what seems to be the end of the deadly second wave of Covid-19 in India, several recovering patients stare at a long haul of dealing with persisting symptoms — now being defined as ‘long Covid’ by doctors. In light of the situation, News18 will run a 15-day series ‘Decoding Long Covid‘ where doctors with different specializations will address concerns, recommend ways to deal with them, and suggest when to seek help.

In today’s column Dr Preeti Parakh, psychiatrist and head at Mpower – The Centre in Kolkata, explains how Covid-19 patients develop neuropsychiatric conditions after Covid and why their pre-existing mental health issues can worsen during the infection and in the recovery phase.

“Recent research has shown that around one-third of long Covid patients develop neuropsychiatric conditions within six months of being infected. The chronic or recurrent nature of some of these conditions and the prevailing stigma in society about seeking help for mental illness makes the impact of long Covid even more devastating. It is also quite alarming that even people, who had no prior history of mental health problems, ended up with psychiatric conditions after the Covid-19 infection,” Dr Parakh told News18.

While it is not fully understood how the virus causes neuropsychiatric manifestations, she said, “The body’s immune reaction to the virus, the blood clotting abnormalities were commonly seen in the infected, the mental stress of being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, the pandemic-related socio-economic problems, all these factors may contribute to mental health implications of long Covid. Long periods of social isolation and disrupted daily routines are also not conducive to good mental health.”

The most common neuropsychiatric conditions seen in long Covid are anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and insomnia. Anxiety disorders are characterised by excessive worrying, tension and nervousness, physical symptoms like palpitations, sweating, and tremors.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that is common in long Covid, especially in people who had long hospitalization and ICU stay. Frequent nightmares and flashbacks of traumatic experiences make it very difficult to cope with. Depression involves feeling sad most of the time, decreased energy levels, and loss of interest in activities that were once pleasurable. People with long Covid and depression have an increased risk of suicide,” said the doctor.

Parakh explained that dependency on substances might also increase or develop post-Covid recovery. “Often, people resort to alcohol or other substances to cope with pandemic-related life events and end up getting addicted. Those with long Covid are more vulnerable to developing substance use disorders,” she added.

The doctor explained that while insomnia is common in people with anxiety and depression, in long Covid, it also affects people without significant anxiety or mood symptoms. “One should not be reluctant to take help from a mental health professional when these problems are persistent and difficult to cope with. Any condition severe enough to interfere with daily life warrants a visit to the doctor.

In addition to taking professional help, there are also quite a few things one can do to improve one’s mental health during long Covid.

“People should avoid exposure to news items that distress them. There is no need for them to keep a daily update on the number of people dying from Covid. They should avoid reading about events that make them feel helpless and frustrated. Meditation, yoga and relaxation exercises like deep breathing can help reduce stress. However, most importantly, one should try to share his/her problems with friends and family. Join support groups if possible. It helps to know that you are not alone in this crisis,” said Parakh.

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