Now COVID is causing mental illness?

You’d think that nearly a year into the throes of the pandemic we’d have figured out most of the details about this disease, wouldn’t you? And yet COVID-19 continues to surprise doctors around the world, with new discoveries arising on a regular basis. The latest one that popped up in my news feed this week seems a bit dubious, however. A medical journal that typically deals with issues not related to contagious diseases has published a study suggesting an unexpected side effect among survivors of the plague. A significant portion of them will come down with some form of mental illness. (NY Post)

Twenty percent of coronavirus patients later develop a new mental illness, according to a study.

The most common disorders experienced by COVID-19 survivors within 90 days of their diagnoses are anxiety, depression and insomnia, according to the study published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal.

“People have been worried that COVID-19 survivors will be at greater risk of mental health problems, and our findings … show this to be likely,” said Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at Britain’s Oxford University.

The study in question wasn’t limited to some small number of test subjects. The researchers went through the electronic records of more than 60,000 patients. (They can do that?)

But what sorts of mental illnesses are we talking about here? While I dread having to wade into such a controversial topic yet again, I’ve long been convinced that when it comes to the field of psychiatry, there are mental illnesses and then there are “mental illnesses.” What these researchers are pointing to are diagnoses of “anxiety, depression and insomnia.”

I’m not trying to minimize the issues that some people have to deal with when it comes to their mental well-being, but when I think of someone with a mental disorder I’m usually picturing someone suffering from schizophrenia or some other, equally serious malady. Recognizing that there are various levels of severity for pretty much any illness, the issues highlighted in this study seem to fall toward the other end of the mental health spectrum. So people who have contracted the novel coronavirus are anxious, depressed, and have a hard time sleeping. No kidding. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, we’ve just wrapped up an incredibly contentious election, a significant portion of the country is out of work and the economy is still on the skids. On top of that, they just found another 500 murder hornets. And then you came down with the disease everyone is dreading?

How many people do you know who aren’t feeling some anxiety? Feeling depressed and having trouble sleeping seem to be defining characteristics for most of the people I talk to. Hell, I’m frequently anxious and/or depressed at some point during the day and I’m fortunate enough to still be employed. If I tested positive for COVID, I’d probably be a basket case.

At least for me, this issue dredges up questions that have long bothered me about psychology and psychiatry in general. The inner workings of the human mind (as opposed to the physical wellness of the brain) are pretty mysterious, despite all of the work that’s gone into studying the subject. When does a person cross the line from being understandably sad to being clinically “depressed?” It’s perfectly normal to be nervous (or “anxious”) about a potentially dangerous situation, but who qualifies for a medical diagnosis of “anxiety?” How many nights in a row do you have to experience bad dreams or take too long to fall asleep before you have a “sleep disorder?”

Again, I’m not a doctor of any sort, so use your own best judgment. But it seems to me that for anyone who contracts this virus it would be the most natural thing in the world to experience those effects. Or maybe I’m the one who’s crazy here?