St. Louis research warns of mental health crisis from COVID-19

The Washington University research could be used to prevent spikes in addiction and suicide, as one Clayton psychiatrist promotes therapy.

ST. LOUIS — Health leaders have warned of the mental health complications that could follow a COVID-19 diagnosis, but Washington University clinical epidemiologist Dr. Ziyah Al-Aly suspects the damage is far worse than previous estimates.

“This is a much, much bigger problem than we expected,” he said. “We didn’t anticipate the scale of it, but also the breadth of disorders.”

Al-Aly, who treats patients within the VA St. Louis Health Care System, said he recently crunched the numbers for 153,848 adults who tested positive for COVID-19 between March 2020 and Jan. 15, 2021, comparing them against a control group of 11 million people for a new study in the journal The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal).

Their research found patients who had COVID-19 were 60% more likely to suffer from mental health problems than those who were not infected. When hospitalized, the likelihood jumped to 86%.

When asked why Al-Aly said there is no exact cause yet but research shows SARS-Co-V-2 can enter and affect the brain.

“COVID-19 can enter the brain and can also lead to alterations in brain chemistry and brain architecture,” he said, adding “that may affect mood centers and affect centers in the brain — like the amygdala and other areas — that are responsible for us feeling good and feeling content  and feeling happy.”

In Clayton, psychiatrist Dr. Dale Anderson said he’s “not at all surprised.”

“People have been very challenged by what’s happened to us during the pandemic,” he said.

Anderson practices cognitive therapy, to “help people focus on what they could do [and] what they can do, rather than focusing on what they are restricted from doing until we can get back to normal.”

To help, he created a program online called COPOW — a combination of “cognitive therapy” and “power” — signing up more than 400 people and showing them ways to focus on what they can do to be proactive and positive instead of coping through negative or harmful methods.

“In this pandemic, there are some times when people will self-medicate with alcohol or self-medicate with drugs and it has caused overdoses, and it is causing all sorts of problems for people,” he said, adding “there is help for that.”

Dr. Al-Aly says that’s one of the biggest take-aways.

In his study, those infected with the virus were 34% more likely to develop opioid-based disorders, 20% more likely to develop disorders related to alcohol or illegal drugs and 46% more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

He said this data could be used to “nip it in the bud” and to “prevent it from becoming and much, much more serious problem down the road.”

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