Long link between COVID and suicide: Scientists warn of hidden crisis

CHICAGO/LONDON, Sept 8 (Reuters) – Scott Taylor could never quit COVID-19.

The 56-year-old, who caught the disease in the spring of 2020, had still not recovered about 18 months later when he took his own life at his home near Dallas, having lost his health, memory and ‘silver.

“No one cares. No one wants to take the time to listen,” Taylor wrote in a final text to a friend, speaking about the plight of millions of people suffering from long COVID, a debilitating illness that can last for months. and years after the initial infection.

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“I can barely do laundry without complete exhaustion, pain, fatigue, pain up and down my spine. The world is spinning, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. It seems like I’m saying stuff and I have no idea what I’m saying,” Taylor added.

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

There are no authoritative data on the frequency of suicides among patients. Several scientists from organizations such as the US National Institutes of Health and the UK data collection agency are beginning to investigate a potential link following evidence of an increase in cases of depression and suicidal thoughts among people with long COVID, as well as an increasing number of known deaths.

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

Among the key questions currently being examined by researchers: is suicide risk potentially increased in patients because the virus alters 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 issues?

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

“We should take this seriously,” he added.

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 antidepressant prescription within 90 days of their diagnosis. baseline of COVID compared to people diagnosed with COVID alone.

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

“WE DON’T KNOW THE SCOPE”

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

While many long-term COVID patients recover over time, about 15% still have symptoms after 12 months, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. There is no proven treatment, and the debilitating symptoms can prevent sufferers from working.

The implications of a long COVID potentially linked to an increased risk of mental illness and suicide are serious; In America alone, the disease has affected up to 23 million people, the US Government Accountability Office estimated in March.

Long COVID has also pushed about 4.5 million people out of work, or about 2.4% of the U.S. workforce, Brookings Institution employment expert Katie Bach told Congress in July.

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

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

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

REACHING THE BREAKING POINT

Time is a scarce commodity for a growing number of long-time COVID sufferers who say they lack hope and money, according to Reuters interviews with several dozen patients, family members and health experts. sickness.

For Taylor, who lost her job selling genomic tests to doctors in a series of layoffs in the summer of 2020, the breaking point came when her insurance coverage through her former employer had to expire and that her application for Social Security benefits has been denied, her family says.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said his older brother Mark Taylor.

Heidi Ferrer, a 50-year-old TV screenwriter from Kansas, took her own life in May 2021 to escape the tremors and excruciating pain that left her unable to walk or sleep after contracting COVID for more than a year. earlier, her husband Nick Guthe said.

Guthe, a filmmaker who has become an advocate for long COVID patients since the death of his wife, said that until last winter he had not heard of any other suicides within the long network. patients with COVID.

“They now come every week,” he added.

Survivor Corps, a long-time COVID patient advocacy group, said it surveyed its members in May and found that 44% of nearly 200 respondents said they had considered suicide.

Lauren Nichols, a board member of the long COVID support group Body Politic, said that through contact with family members on social media, she was aware of more than 50 people with long COVID who had committed suicide, although Reuters was unable to independently confirm the cases. .

Nichols, 34, a logistics expert for the U.S. Department of Transportation in Boston, says she herself has considered suicide several times because of the long COVID, which she has suffered from for more than two years.

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

LONG COVID AND OMICRON

The US National Institutes of Health is tracking mental health impacts as part of its $470 million RECOVER Long COVID Study. The first results on anxiety and depression rates are expected in early September, but information on suicide will take longer, said lead researcher Dr Stuart Katz.

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

On whether the virus alters the brain, Gallagher said there is evidence that COVID can cause brain inflammation – which has been linked to suicide and depression – even in people with the disease. relatively benign.

“There may be direct toxic effects, in some ways, of the virus, and part of that will be inflammation,” he said.

Long COVID reduces overall health by an average of 21% — similar to total deafness or traumatic brain injury, the University of Washington’s IHME found.

Although some experts expected Omicron to be less likely to cause long COVID, official UK data released this month revealed that 34% of the country’s 2 million long COVID patients developed their symptoms after infection with Omicron.

A UK government advisory group is studying the risk of suicide for long COVID patients compared to the wider population while the Office for National Statistics (ONS) studies whether it can assess the risk of suicide in advance a long COVID patient as it does for people with other illnesses, like cancer.

“Long-term disabling health conditions can increase the risk of suicide, hence the concern over the long COVID,” said Louis Appleby, professor of psychiatry at the University of Manchester and adviser to the UK government.

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

Britain’s network of long-running COVID treatment centers is also significantly oversubscribed, adding to a sense of hopelessness for some; in June, the last 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 more than 15 weeks.

Ruth Oshikanlu, a former midwife and health visitor in London turned pregnancy coach, said her long COVID health issues have combined to push her close to the edge. When her business temporarily closed due to debt issues after she struggled to work, she felt her life was over.

“I was crying at the accountant, and the guy made me wait – I think he didn’t want to be the last person to talk to me,” the 48-year-old recalled.

“What COVID gives you is a lot of time to think,” she said. “I didn’t think about ending it thankfully because of my son. But I know so many people who have had these suicidal thoughts.”

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Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Jennifer Rigby in London; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Pravin Char

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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