Study: Patients May Experience Delirium, PTSD From Battling Coronavirus


Doctors warn that constant worry over COVID-19 is associated with poor long-term mental health.


LONDON — Roughly one in four hospitalized COVID-19 patients may develop delirium during their illness, and PTSD is a legitimate potential long-term health risk for recovered patients. Those are the disturbing findings from a new piece of research conducted by University College London.

Delirium is defined as any abrupt change in the brain’s functioning that disrupts and confuses one’s mental and emotional state.

Researchers performed a deep dive on prior studies conducted on past coronavirus patients (SARS, MERS, and any available COVID-19 data). This analysis is what revealed so many coronavirus patients may develop psychiatric problems, either during the course of their illness or afterward at some point. Obviously, COVID-19 hasn’t been around long enough for anyone to know how recovered patients are going to be feeling years down the line. But, the study’s authors say a host of nasty post-recovery complications may develop in patients.

For example, recovered SARS and MERS patients have reported bouts with PTSD, anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue. So, there’s a high chance the same problems will arise in COVID-19 patients.

“Most people with COVID-19 will not develop any mental health problems, even among those with severe cases requiring hospitalization, but given the huge numbers of people getting sick, the global impact on mental health could be considerable,” comments co-lead author Dr. Jonathan Rogers in a release. “Our analysis focuses on potential mental health risks of being hospitalized with a coronavirus infection, and how psychiatric conditions could worsen the prognosis or hold people back from returning to their normal lives after recovering.”

In total, 65 studies and seven pre-prints were included in this research, all encompassing over 3,500 coronavirus (SARS, MERS, COVID-19) patients. While only hospitalized patients were investigated, some were tracked for periods as long as 12 years after recovery.

They discovered that far more SARS and MERS patients went on to develop PTSD than anyone would expect. Based on a follow-up period of almost three years, nearly one in three recovered patients developing PTSD symptoms. Additionally, 15% of SARS or MERS patients reported depression symptoms roughly one year after recovering, and more than 15% experienced various other problems (constant fatigue, mood swings, sleep disorders, memory issues).

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Many hospitalized SARS and MERS patients also experienced delirium symptoms (confusion, agitation, altered consciousness). Early COVID-19 data suggests that delirium is common among current patients as well.

“We need more research on how to prevent mental health problems in the long term. One possibility might be to reduce social isolation by allowing patients to communicate with their loved ones by using video links,” explains co-lead author Dr. Edward Chesney.

The study’s authors noted that constant worry over COVID-19 was associated with poor long-term mental health.

“To avoid a large-scale mental health crisis, we hope that people who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 will be offered support, and monitored after they recover to ensure they do not develop mental illnesses, and are able to access treatment if needed,” concludes senior author Professor Anthony David. “While most people with COVID-19 will recover without experiencing mental illness, we need to research which factors may contribute to enduring mental health problems, and develop interventions to prevent and treat them.”

The study is published in The Lancet Psychiatry. 

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