Does having COVID-19 affect mental health?

September 29, 2021

This article has not been updated recently

More than 700,000 ZOE COVID Study app contributors responded to our mental health survey back at the start of 2021.

We’ve previously talked about the full findings from the survey, focusing on the habits and behaviours associated with better or worse mental health, and we discussed the impact of the pandemic on mental health in an expert webinar

Now our research colleagues at King’s College London have published a scientific paper in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, looking in depth at whether testing positive for COVID-19 has a negative effect on mental health. 

Is COVID associated with anxiety and depression?

In this study, we analysed data from 421,977 ZOE COVID Study app contributors, of whom around 27,000 tested positive for COVID-19 between February 23rd and April 12th 2021.

We discovered that 30% of people who tested positive for COVID-19 reported feeling anxious or depressed compared with 26% of people who tested negative - a relatively small increase.

We also found that people who were infected recently were more likely to report mental health problems compared with those who had been infected more than four months ago. This suggests that the impact of having COVID-19 on mental health fades over time.

Who is at risk of having mental health symptoms with COVID-19?

The chances of reporting mental health symptoms after testing positive for COVID-19 were not the same for everyone. 

In our study, people who reported having previously had a mental health condition were more than twice as likely to experience anxiety and depression symptoms after testing positive for COVID-19 than those without a history of mental health conditions.

We also looked at how pre-existing physical conditions, obesity, and age were associated with anxiety and depression symptoms. 

We found that people who were obese were 61% more likely to experience anxiety and depression symptoms compared to people with a healthy weight, while those with other health conditions or learning disabilities saw a 25%-35% increase.

Dr Claire Steves, Reader from King’s College London and lead researcher on the study says, “This research puts the relationship between COVID-19 infection and mental health in context. We found a slightly elevated risk of feeling anxious or down for people who had previously had COVID-19, but this was small compared to major risk factors for mental health problems such as obesity, and previous health problems or disabilities.”

How worried should I be about COVID-19 and mental health?

The pandemic has been a difficult time for many. Surveys show that mental health has been affected, particularly during lockdowns.

However, this study suggests that the direct impact of having COVID-19 on your mental health is likely to be short-lived and small, so there’s no need to be too worried.

Study author Kerstin Klaser from King’s College London says, “The association between a COVID-19 infection and anxiety or depression was most evident in recently infected individuals, which suggests that the small effect of SARS-CoV-2 on mental health may be only of short duration.”

If you’re reading this and struggling with your mental health, you can self-refer for online support and therapy. Alternatively you can go and see your GP to see how they can help, and the charity Mind also has information and support available.

If you’re not sure, but you need someone to talk to, please do give the Samaritans a call on 116 123. 

How can I help with COVID-19 and mental health research?

We’ve previously shown that COVID-19 can have other effects on the brain, causing symptoms such as sudden confusion (delirium) in older people and ‘brain fog’ in those suffering from Long COVID. 

There’s a lot we still need to find out about how COVID-19 affects our mental and physical health, especially when it comes to Long COVID. And in the future we’ll be broadening our research to look more generally at mental health and other health conditions. 

If you want to get involved in this vital work, simply download the ZOE COVID Study app, register an account and start logging your health today. And if you’re already a contributor, don’t forget to open your app and follow the questions to opt in to further health research.

Stay safe and keep logging.

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