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Long-COVID brain changes causing rise in mental health issues

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Posted at 11:57 AM, Jan 30, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-30 14:03:33-05

The hallmarks of COVID-19 have been trouble breathing, loss of smell and taste, and fatigue, but as the years pass, doctors have documented up to 200 related symptoms. One trend has been a rise in incidents of suicide and doctors are finding the risk is higher for those who've had COVID.

"In the elderly, we're seeing something called COVID encephalopathy where there's an inflammation of the brain and that causes confusion, altered personalities, (and) it can even mirror a stroke," said ABC15 Health Insider Dr. Shad Marvasti.

That inflammation is a form of brain damage. For some, it presents as brain fog, while for others, it triggers extreme emotional reactions.

One study by eClinical Medicine finds 88% of post-COVID patients suffer a mood issue within seven months. Another from BMC Psychiatry shows you're twice as likely to experience depression and anxiety. According to BMJ, patients are 50% more likely to have thoughts of suicide even after recovery.

Doctors are also reporting more patients who attempted to take their life are testing COVID-positive or had recently recovered.

Dr. Shad says in addition to the physiological impact on the brain, the stress of other potential long-term COVID impacts like diabetes and respiratory issues can further strain mental health.

"A lot of times we don't know what's happening, we get overwhelmed and if you're already lonely or isolated or depressed, that can push you over the edge," said Dr. Shad who believes mental health checks should be a part of follow-up care for COVID patients.

He says COVID vaccines and boosters are still the best way to protect yourself from long COVID symptoms. Continuing to mask up in crowded, indoor spaces will also reduce your risk of getting it.

"The more times you get COVID, the worse those outcomes are so that's another incentive to avoid it in the first place," he said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call or text 988.