A new study shows that 20% of those who contract coronavirus are diagnosed with a mental health illness within 3 months. This is about twice as likely as for other groups of patients over the same period. 1 in 4 had not had a psychiatric diagnosis before COVID-19.

Paul Harrison, Professor of Psychiatry, University Oxford, Theme Lead – NIHR Oxford Health BRC, who led the study, said: “People have been worried that COVID-19 survivors will be at greater risk of mental health problems, and our findings in a large and detailed study show this to be likely. Services need to be ready to provide care, especially since our results are likely to be underestimates of the actual number of cases. We urgently need research to investigate the causes and identify new treatments.”

Research by the University of Oxford has also reported that those with pre-existing psychiatric disorders are 65% more likely to develop coronavirus.

The Centre for Evidence Based Medicine (CEBM) is conducting further studies to establish the link, but so far have observed a correlation which have been attributed to a variety of factors: medications, residential facilities, behavioural, and lifestyle factors all interact to increase occurrences and severity of coronavirus.

Some medications used to treat mental health conditions have been proven to suppress the immune system and give the patient side effects which exacerbate their vulnerability to coronavirus. Antipsychotic medication such as Clozapine can lower white blood cell counts by over 15%, thereby significantly reducing immunity. This is in addition to other side effects such as diabetes, obesity and respiratory depression, which are known to be coronavirus risk factors.

Across the UK in 2019, there were over 16,000 patients in psychiatric inpatient units. In a similar manner to the pandemic’s care home crisis, shared spaces and overcrowding, as well as a lack of PPE, have intensified the likelihood of contracting the virus and created an environment for coronavirus to spread rapidly. Paired with the increased vulnerability of patients due to medical and lifestyle factors, this greatly increases the risk to patients.

Dr Max Taquet, NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow, who conducted the analyses, remarked: “This finding was unexpected and needs investigation. In the meantime, having a psychiatric disorder should be added to the list of risk factors for COVID-19.”