Researchers are exploring a possible link between long COVID-19, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Time recently reported that a 2021 survey of COVID-19 long haulers who were members of the support group Survivor Corps found that 18% of those asked said that they had at some point thought about suicide since developing long COVID. The article noted that among the general population, the share with suicidal thoughts is about 4%.

She asked again a few weeks ago and the number had risen dramatically — to about 45% of the 200 who answered the question.

It wasn’t a scientific or representative poll, but it points to what experts call a worrisome issue.

Some people — who may even have had what seemed like very light COVID-19 symptoms initially — are suffering a host of after-effects. Per Times: “Long COVID, a chronic condition that affects millions of Americans who’ve had COVID-19, often looks nothing like acute COVID-19. Sufferers report more than 200 symptoms affecting nearly every part of the body, including the neurologic, cardiovascular, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems. The condition ranges in severity, but many so-called ‘long-haulers’ are unable to work, go to school or leave their homes with any sort of consistency.”

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The Independent also reported on the apparent link between long COVID symptoms and anxiety and depression, interviewing a couple who had planned to die by suicide together.

The article noted that it isn’t just the misery symptoms associated with long COVID that leave people feeling desperate, but also “lack of support and care.” Many of those suffering the mental health impact had never had psychiatric symptoms of any kind before they got COVID-19, The Independent reported.

Growing body of evidence

A study in the Lancet series journal eClinicalMedicine found that for COVID-19 long haulers, recovery typically took longer than 35 weeks — sometimes much longer — and that while they were experiencing it, they had an average of more than 55 symptoms across nine organ symptoms, including cognitive issues, in the vast majority of cases.

“There is a high probability that symptoms of psychiatric, neurological and physical illnesses, as well as inflammatory damage to the brain in individuals with post-COVID syndrome, increase suicidal ideation and behavior in this patient population,” QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, reported last year.

The article noted that more research on the link between neuropsychiatric issues and long COVID is “urgently needed.”

An article in the journal BMC Psychiatry looked at what happens to those with post-COVID symptoms in Japan and Sweden. The study found that “approximately half had some physical symptoms after COVID-19 and that post-COVID conditions may lead to the onset of mental disorders.”

Abigail Hardin, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Rush University, told Time that the American health care system typically considers illnesses to be either physical or mental, though they can be both. “In reality, all of these things are actually very bidirectional,” she said. “Everything is integrated.”

She noted that separating the two can lead to misdiagnosis or assigning labels that aren’t fully accurate or helpful.

Meanwhile, a cohort study in BMJ found those who were long haulers were more prone to anxiety disorders, depressive symptoms, stress and adjustment problems and use of antidepressants. They were also more likely to experience opioid use disorders, neurocognitive decline and sleep disorders, which have also been linked to risk of depression and suicidal thoughts.

“The findings suggest that people who survive the acute phase of COVID-19 are at increased risk of an array of incident mental health disorders. Tackling mental health disorders among survivors of COVID-19 should be a priority,” the study said.

Those and other experts suggest that recognizing that possible link and doing more research could be key to suicide prevention and improving mental health treatment for those who have lingering coronavirus symptoms.

In England, Dr. Davud Strain, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, who is studying long COVID, told The Independent that cases involving mental health and suicide risk are “going up and up.” What isn’t clear, he noted, is whether the depression and suicidal thoughts are driven by reaction to the illness or by changes in the brain.