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The One COVID Side Effect That Scares Even Doctors

Both coronavirus patients and the uninfected are showing signs.

Doctors are concerned about a widespread and infrequently discussed side effect of COVID-19: Mental illness.

A study published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity found that more than half of people who survive COVID-19 later develop a mental health condition such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the first study of its kind, researchers interviewed 402 people who had previously been hospitalized for COVID-19. They were asked to complete a questionnaire one month after their hospital treatment. The results indicated that 28% of respondents qualified as having PTSD, while 42% had anxiety, 31% had depression, 20% exhibited symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and 40% reported insomnia.

Overall, 56% of participants were in the "diagnosable range" for at least one mental health condition. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.

Experts urge more study

Many COVID-19 patients report psychological or neurological side effects from the illness that can linger for weeks or months, including fatigue, confusion or "brain fog," and personality changes. Scientists suspect COVID-19 causes inflammation in the brain, which could be responsible for some of these symptoms.

The new study's authors stressed that more research is needed. "Considering the alarming impact of COVID-19 infection on mental health, we now suggest assessing psychopathology of COVID-19 survivors, to diagnose and treat emergent psychiatric conditions, monitoring their changes over time, with the aim of reducing the disease burden, which is expected to be very high in patients with psychiatric conditions," they said.

RELATED: 11 Signs You've Already Had COVID-19

Mental health struggles widespread

Recent research shows that mental-health problems are soaring among the uninfected as well. Anxiety about contracting the virus, social isolation, financial worries, and lockdown-related family and relationship pressures—to name just a few of the collateral issues—have taken a heavy toll.

"As a psychiatrist, my most common patients during the pandemic have been working mothers trying to manage a full-time job at home while also being primarily responsible for children at home," wrote Washington, D.C.-based psychiatrist Suzan Song, MD, Ph.D., in an NBC News opinion piece. "Most report feeling irritable with low energy, difficulty focusing, uncontrollable emotions, guilt over perceived privilege, loss of interest in past hobbies, general lack of motivation and thoughts about death and the meaning of life."

According to a July survey by the National Center for Health Statistics and Census Bureau, 30 percent of adults had symptoms of depressive disorder, compared to 6.6 percent last year, while 36 percent had symptoms of an anxiety disorder, compared to 8.2 percent in 2019.

If you're experiencing mental health challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, know you're not alone. Check out the CDC's Coping With Stress page for tips and a comprehensive list of resources.

And do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Wear a mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael