3 Little-Known Mental Health Risk Factors for Covid-19

It is widely known that underlying medical conditions are a risk factor for Covid-19. Thanks to extensive news coverage and massive public health campaigns, most people probably know that physical diseases like cancer and heart disease can increase risks of infection and even death.

Public awareness about mental health and its link to the coronavirus is not at all as widespread, however. For example, while most people may know that old age is the biggest risk factor for dying from Covid, they might be surprised to learn that schizophrenia is the second biggest risk factor for death from the coronavirus.

Schizophrenia Second Biggest Risk Factor for Dying from Covid

Despite receiving little mention comparatively, schizophrenia entails a bigger risk of dying from Covid than diabetes or heart disease, according to a March 2022 report by National Public Radio. The same NPR report said people with schizophrenia were three times more likely to die from Covid than the general population.

This global trend has prompted research into its causes. Some experts have speculated there is a link between psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and an immune system that’s more vulnerable to Covid. If true, that would reinforce the understanding that schizophrenia is as much a physical illness as a mental one. (Today integrated care that concurrently addresses physical and mental health issues is the gold standard treatment for mental illness.)

Higher Risk of Breakthrough Covid in Vaccinated People Over 65

Patients over the age of 65 with certain mental health issues are also up to 24 percent more at risk of contracting breakthrough Covid. That is what researchers from UC San Francisco and the San Francisco VA Health Care System concluded in a study published on April 14, 2022, in the journal JAMA Network Open. The study tracked data from more than a quarter of a million patients through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and found that anxiety, substance abuse, psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder, and adjustment disorder were associated with increased risks of breakthrough Covid among vaccinated people over 65.

Alcohol Abuse and “More Severe Covid and Greater Risk of Mortality”

In just one year of the pandemic, excessive drinking increased by 21 percent in the U.S., Harvard researchers found. (Their findings were published in December 2021 in the journal Hepatology.) This is worrisome for multiple reasons, one of which is the heightened risk associated with the coronavirus.

Alcohol use disorders and alcoholism impair the immune system and increase inflammation. They can even damage the lining of the lungs and lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome, as Dr. George F. Koob, Ph.D., noted in his director’s blog for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“Ultimately,” Dr. Koob concluded, “impaired immune system function and an increased susceptibility to respiratory illness could contribute to more severe Covid-19 and greater risk of mortality.”

An underlying mental health issue—not just physical conditions—can be a significant risk factor for Covid, as well as for complications from Covid, even death. Greater public awareness about this fact will empower more people to make healthy decisions, which sometimes may require consulting a doctor about an alcohol problem or mental health issue.

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