Lasting Depression and Anxiety Can Follow Severe Covid-19 Cases

Some patients with serious reactions to the virus reported mental health symptoms almost a year and a half after infection

A Black woman with a face masks looks out of a window
Most people who had only mild Covid-19 infections are not at higher risk for persistent mental health challenges. VioletaStoimenova via Getty Images

Symptoms of depression and anxiety can persist for more than a year after a severe Covid-19 infection, according to a new research.

Though there has been increased attention on the lasting effects of Covid-19, medical professionals still know little about the long-term mental health symptoms associated with the virus. In a study published this week in The Lancet Public Health, scientists looked at health data from nearly 250,000 people living across northern Europe between February 2020 through August 2021. During that year-and-half window, about 4 percent of the participants contracted Covid-19.

Their analysis revealed that patients with the most serious illness—bedridden for a week or more—were 50 to 60 percent more likely to report experiencing anxiety, depression, or both, 16 months later. While those with severe reactions were more likely to experience mental health repercussions, individuals that had milder infections appeared to be at lower risk for mental health problems than the general public, Erika Edwards reports for NBC News.

"The good news is that the patient group as a whole is not at higher risk of developing long-term (mental health) symptoms," says study author Unnur Anna Valdimarsdóttir, an epidemiologist at the University of Iceland, to USA Todays Karen Weintraub.

Therefore, the majority of people who had Covid-19, but had only mild symptoms during infection, are not at higher risk for persistent mental health symptoms, Valdimarsdóttir says. The research team isn’t sure why those with mild infections seem to fare better than those who never contracted the virus at all.

"There might be a relief associated with having gone through the infection," Valdimarsdóttir tells USA Today.

The results of the study don’t mean Covid-19 infections cause these mental health problems, only that they appear to be connected in serious cases. It’s also not clear if these symptoms are related to the virus itself, or the trauma of contracting a serious illness.

"It's unsurprising that if you have more severe disease, you're more likely to experience significant mental health outcomes at long-term follow-up,” says David Putrino, a physical therapist at the Mount Sinai Health System who reviewed the study, to U.S. News & World Report. "It may be that individuals with more severe disease are experiencing more persistent symptoms that have interfered with their ability to just get back to their pre-infection life, and that's causing mental health concerns."