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Fact or Fiction: Can COVID-19 impact brain function and mental health?

Updated: Mar. 23, 2021 at 6:44 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - WBRC’s On Your Side Investigations continues to work to help you debunk myths and information about COVID-19. In the latest installment of Coronavirus: Fact or Fiction we take up the issue of COVID-inducted psychosis and whether the virus can impact your mental health.

The facts: COVID-19 can produce acute or long-term effects on the brain through issues like post-COVID brain fog for long haulers to something as debilitating as psychosis.

Theresa Nguyen, Mental Health America’s Chief Program Officer and Vice President of Research and Innovation says without question, COVID-19 can impact the brain.

“COVID itself is going to result in inflammation and we know a lot of mental illnesses have relationship to inflammation of the brain,” Nguyen explained. “It makes a lot of sense that when you have a virus, that will create brain inflammation – that will be an experience for a lot of people.”

COVID-inducted psychosis can result in paranoid delusions, hallucinations, and in some instances self-harm or harm to others. Nyguen explained most patients experience acute psychosis at the height of their infection. The onset can also occur after recovery.

Some who are impacted have no history of mental illness.

“For some smaller proportion of individuals, they do experience seeing things that may not be there and having extreme fear,” she cited. “Sometimes it’s worrying that someone is in a space, like the garage or in the house, which is paranoia. There are also other kinds of hallucinations or psychotic occurrences.”

Some instances require hospital-level or psychiatric care. If someone begins to exhibit symptoms of psychosis, Nguyen says it’s important to meet them where they are and get them the care they need. “You don’t have to fight the delusion, it’s okay to just roll with it,” she added. “If someone is convinced there’s a stranger in the garage you can agree that it’s really scary and ask ‘what can I do to make that better for you.’”

Based on limited research, COVID-related psychosis occurs in a relatively low percentage of COVID-19 patients. The issue was pushed to the forefront in early March after a young father died by suicide days after being released from the hospital. His family told local news outlets that he had no history of mental illness but was suffering from post-COVID psychosis.

Nguyen says it’s important to keep a close check on friends and family who are quarantined with the virus to monitor both their physical and mental health.

The highest number of patients suffering from brain related COVID symptoms are those facing brain fog, a symptom experienced by a growing number of patients for months after recovering from the virus.

“The challenge with long haulers, you can feel normal in a moment while cleaning your house and then you feel suddenly exhausted, those experiences can be very frustrating,” Nguyen admitted. “Don’t try to work on these issues alone, turn to the internet as a resource. Part of being in a long hauler Facebook group is that you have a group of people you can check your symptoms with and even say, ‘I’m struggling, does anyone else feel this way too.’”

Nyuyen is hopeful the pandemic is normalizing mental illness and the ability to discuss it freely. She noted over the last year Mental Health America’s online screening tools for anxiety and depression have been used in record numbers by the public signaling a broad demand for access to mental health services.

“There’s a lot of work ahead but I also see hope, too,” cited Nguyen. “I don’t have to be scared in saying I need mental health treatment; I don’t need to pretend it’s going to be okay. I am so grateful that narrative is changing. I think everyone who understands a year into this pandemic that the solution is not to charge forward, there’s a wall you’re going to hit. A lot of people are going to burn out. At some point your body is going to say, ‘if you won’t stop, I will stop for you.’”

If you are experiencing anxiety or depression, go to MHAscreening.org to get screened and access tools and resources. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call 911, go to the nearest emergency room, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center, or text MHA to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line.

Mental Health America is the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting overall mental health. Learn more at MHAnational.org.

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