People with poor mental health were more likely to suffer long-term symptoms from their COVID-19 infection, according to a new study.
Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that psychological distress — which includes depression, anxiety, worry, perceived stress and loneliness — was more strongly associated with developing long COVID than physical risk factors such as obesity, asthma and hypertension, according to a press release on the peer-reviewed study published in JAMA Psychiatry.
“We were surprised by how strongly psychological distress before a COVID-19 infection was associated with an increased risk of long COVID,” said Siwen Wang, a researcher in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School who led the study.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines long COVID as those experiencing symptoms four weeks after they recover from their infection. Those symptoms can include fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, diarrhea or muscle and joint pain.
Researchers initially enrolled 54,000 people for the study and asked them about their psychological distress. More than 3,000 participants contracted COVID over the following year, and the researchers followed up to ask them about their symptoms and how long they lasted.
They found that people who suffered from depression, anxiety, worry and loneliness had a 32%-46% greater risk of experiencing long COVID. Those under psychological distress were also associated with a 15%-51% greater risk of long COVID impairing their day-to-day life.
“We need to consider psychological health in addition to physical health as risk factors of long COVID-19,” said Andrea Roberts, senior research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School. “These results also reinforce the need to increase public awareness of the importance of mental health and to get mental health care for people who need it, including increasing the supply of mental health clinicians and improving access to care.”