One in five people who survive COVID-19 will be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within 90 days, according to a study examining the pandemic.
The most common conditions that recovered patients are diagnosed with include anxiety, depression and insomnia, although the researchers also found significantly higher risks of dementia.
It comes as the number of people who have died with coronavirus in the UK passes the 50,000 mark, according to government figures, highlighting the devastating impact of the virus on the country.
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“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 Professor Paul Harrison, a psychiatrist at the University of Oxford.
The mechanism which causes the increased risk of mental illness is not yet known and deserves urgent investigation, Professor Harrison said.
“Health services need to be ready to provide care, especially since our results are likely to be underestimates [of the number of patients in psychiatric care],” he added.
The study, published this week in the Lancet Psychiatry journal, analysed the electronic health records of 69 million people in the US including 62,000 people who had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
It found that in the three months following a positive test, 20% of survivors received their first-ever diagnosis for anxiety, depression or insomnia – roughly twice as common as those illnesses that arise in other groups of patients.
The research adds to observations and evidence that the coronavirus can impact the brain and mind.
“This is likely due to a combination of the psychological stressors associated with this particular pandemic and the physical effects of the illness,” according to Dr Michael Bloomfield, a consultant psychiatrist at University College London.
Despite the government’s latest death figures, in reality the UK probably passed the mark of 50,000 fatalities a while ago.
The government’s data includes people who have died within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19.
But separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies – which include deaths when COVID-19 has been mentioned on the death certificate – show there have now been 65,000 fatalities involving coronavirus in the UK.
It comes after the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said in March that keeping the number of UK deaths below 20,000 would be a “good result” from the pandemic.
With coronavirus deaths rising again in the UK, the government hopes a vaccine can start to be rolled out in December after one in development was found to be 90% effective in preventing people from getting the virus.