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Neurological Health 2021

Long-COVID: the next crisis in mental health?

iStock / Getty Images Plus / Drazen Zigic

Dr Adrian James

President, Royal College of Psychiatrists

Over 4 million people in the UK and over 150 million people worldwide have now been infected by COVID-19. As a result, long-COVID is now becoming an emerging problem.

Thankfully, most who catch COVID-19 make a full recovery within days, but some who survive their initial illness go on to experience long-lasting and debilitating symptoms known as “long COVID”.

According to the Office for National Statistics, one in five people have symptoms after five weeks, one in seven have them after 12 weeks, and an estimated 1.1 million people experienced long COVID in February 2021.

Common symptoms include fatigue, coughs, headaches and muscle pain. About 20% of people said these limited their day-to-day activities a lot.

The need for continued research

Why do some get long COVID and others don’t? We’re not sure. For starters, there is currently no agreed definition of what we call “long COVID”, it could be several different but overlapping post-COVID syndromes.

We urgently need more research to improve our understanding and provide better diagnosis and treatment, but research takes time and there is a need for better support now.

When it comes to resourcing the NHS for after-effects of this pandemic, mental health must not be forgotten.

We need to think about long COVID in the same way we think about other long-term physical health conditions like diabetes, arthritis and asthma. These have a profound impact on the lives of those affected, including on their jobs, relationships and mental health.

Impact on mental health

People living with a long-term condition are two to three times more likely than the general population to experience mental illness, such as depression and anxiety. Having more than one long-term condition increases the risk even further.

Without investment reaching the frontline, mental health services could be overwhelmed by long COVID patients. When it comes to resourcing the NHS for after-effects of this pandemic, mental health must not be forgotten.

We also need to break down unhelpful barriers between physical and mental health between body and mind, which are easily established. Putting patients and services into silos helps no one. What is needed is a holistic, integrated and multidisciplinary approach which puts patients at the centre of their care.

Graphs showing the peaks in cases and deaths have become grimly familiar to us all. Although in the UK we are past our recent peak, the worry is that those peaks have created a second health crisis, one that is slower burning and less visible. The reality is that the mental health consequences of this virus will be with us for years to come.

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