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Scientists warn of hidden crisis as suicides potentially linked to long COVID

Several scientists from organisations, including the US National Institutes of Health and Britain’s data-collection agency, are beginning to study a potential link following evidence of increased cases of depression and suicidal thoughts among people with long COVID, as well as a growing number of known deaths.

Survivor Corps, an advocacy group for long COVID patients, said it polled their membership in May and found that 44% of nearly 200 respondents said they had considered suicide.

Long COVID is a complex medical condition that can be hard to diagnose as it has a range of more than 200 symptoms – some of which can resemble other illnesses – from exhaustion and cognitive impairment to pain, fever and heart palpitations, according to the World Health Organisation.

There is no authoritative data on the frequency of suicides among sufferers.

“I’m sure it’s associated with suicidal thoughts, with suicide attempts, with suicide plans and the risk of suicide death. We just don’t have epidemiological data,” said Leo Sher, a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Health System in New York who studies mood disorders and suicidal behaviour.

Among key questions now being examined by researchers: does the risk of suicide potentially increase among patients because the virus is changing brain biology? Or does the loss of their ability to function as they once did push people to the brink, as can happen with other long-term health conditions?

Sher said pain disorders in general were a very strong of predictor of suicide, as was inflammation in the brain, which several studies have linked with long COVID, reports Reuters.

“We should take this seriously,” he added.

An analysis for Reuters conducted by Seattle-based health data firm Truveta showed that patients with long COVID were nearly twice as likely to receive a first-time antidepressant prescription within 90 days of their initial COVID diagnosis, compared with people diagnosed with COVID alone.

The analysis was based on data from 20 major US hospital systems, including more than 1.3m adults with a COVID diagnosis and 19 000 with a long COVID diagnosis between May 2020 and July 2022.

‘We don’t know the extent’

The potential long-term effects of COVID-19 are poorly understood, with governments and scientists only now starting to systematically study the area as they emerge from a pandemic that itself blindsided much of the world.

While many long COVID patients recover over time, around 15% still experience symptoms after 12 months, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). There’s no proven treatment and debilitating symptoms can leave sufferers unable to work.

The implications of long COVID potentially being linked with increased risk of mental illness and suicide are grave; in America alone, the condition has affected up to 23m people, the US Government Accountability Office estimated in March.

Long COVID has also pushed roughly 4.5m out of work, equal to about 2.4% of the workforce, employment expert Katie Bach of the Brookings Institution told Congress in July.

Worldwide, nearly 150m people are estimated to have developed long COVID during the first two years of the pandemic, according to the IHME.

In many developing countries, a lack of surveillance of long COVID makes the picture even murkier, said Murad Khan, a psychiatry professor at Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, who is part of an international group of experts researching the suicide risk linked to COVID-19.

“We have a huge problem, but we don’t know the extent of it,” he said.

Hitting breaking point

Time is a scarce commodity for a growing number of long COVID sufferers who say they are running out of hope and money, according to Reuters interviews with several dozen patients, relatives and disease experts.

Scott Taylor, who caught the disease in 2020, still had not recovered about 18 months later when he killed himself at his home near Dallas, having lost his health, memory and money.

“No one cares. No one wants to take the time to listen,” Taylor wrote in a final text to a friend. “I can hardly do laundry without complete exhaustion, pain, fatigue, pain all up and down my spine. World spinning dizzily, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea,” he added.

For Taylor, who lost his job in a round of layoffs in the summer of 2020, the breaking point came when his insurance coverage through his former employer was due to expire and his application for social security benefits was denied, his family said.

Heidi Ferrer, TV screenwriter, killed herself in May 2021 to escape the tremors and excruciating pain that left her unable to walk or sleep after contracting COVID more than a year earlier, her husband Nick Guthe said.

Guthe, who has become an advocate for long COVID sufferers since his wife’s death, said that until this past winter, he had not heard of other suicides within the network of long COVID patients.

“They’re now coming on a weekly basis,” he added.

Exit International advises English-speakers on how to seek help with assisted dying in Switzerland, where euthanasia is legal with certain checks. Fiona Stewart, a director, said the organisation, which does not track outcomes after providing advice, had received several dozen inquiries from long COVID patients during the pandemic and was now getting about one a week.

Long COVID and Omicron

The US National Institutes of Health is tracking mental health impacts as part of its $470m RECOVER study into long COVID. Early results on anxiety and depression rates are expected this month (September), but information on suicide will take longer, said Dr Stuart Katz, a lead researcher.

“What we do know is that people with chronic illnesses are susceptible to suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts and suicide completion,” said Richard Gallagher, an associate professor of child psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, who is part of RECOVER.

On the question of whether the virus changes the brain, Gallagher said there was some evidence that COVID can cause brain inflammation, which has been linked to suicide and depression, even among people who had relatively mild disease.

Although some experts expected Omicron to be less likely to cause long COVID, official UK data found that 34% of the 2m long COVID sufferers in the country developed their symptoms after an Omicron infection.

A British Government advisory group is studying the suicide risk for long COVID patients compared with the wider population, while the state Office for National Statistics (ONS) is investigating whether it can assess upfront a long COVID patient’s risk of suicide as it does for people with other diseases, such as cancer.

And research in Britain and Spain found a six-fold increased risk of suicide among patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), another post-viral illness with similar symptoms to long COVID, when compared with the general population.

Britain’s network of long COVID treatment centres is also drastically oversubscribed, adding to a sense of hopelessness for some; in June, the latest month on record, only a third of patients received an appointment within six weeks of being referred by their local doctor, and another third had to wait for more than 15 weeks.


Reuters article – Long COVID’s link to suicide: scientists warn of hidden crisis


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


One in eight adults likely to develop long COVID symptoms – Dutch study


Cognitive problems from severe COVID similar to 20 years of ageing – UK study


Long COVID is ‘exaggerated’ and ‘overblown’


Increased risk of death and serious illness among COVID-19 survivors


Long-haul COVID-19 cases cast new light on chronic fatigue sufferers



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