Individuals With Psychiatric Conditions More Likely To Catch Covid-19

According to a new psychiatric study, individuals diagnosed with a psychiatric condition are more likely to catch Covid-19 after being fully vaccinated. The study reviewed health records of more than 260,000 individuals from the US Department of Veterans Affairs, so the correlation was much stronger in people 65 and older. 

While the results could also be the result of decades of unknowing when it came to psychiatric conditions, individuals who have suffered from these conditions in general have weaker immune systems. 

“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that chronic stress, traumatic stress, and psychiatric conditions can actually accelerate cellular aging,” Aoife O’Donovan, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco and one of the study authors.

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“It’s putting you at risk for appearing older biologically, and for your immune system, in particular, to function like the immune system of someone who’s older than you, and that’s certainly seen in patients with psychiatric disorders.”

People with any psychiatric condition were found to be 3.7% more likely to develop a breakthrough infection of Covid-19. Among all the diagnoses, non-alcohol substance abuse had the greatest correlation to breakthrough cases; risk is increased by 16%. 

“Addiction causes people to increase risk-taking behaviors, and the pandemic created an environment where everything from hugging to eating at a restaurant was a risk-taking behavior,” said O’Donovan.

Adjustment disorders, or feelings of unusual stress or sadness in response to a life event, was linked to a 13% increase in risk for infection, followed by anxiety conditions (8%), bipolar disorder (7%), alcoholism (5%), depression (5%), and PTSD (3%). 

Overall, the study found that people aged 65 or older with a psychiatric diagnosis are 5% more likely to have a breakthrough Covid-19 infection. Additionally, O’Donovan explained how using data exclusively from the VA wasn’t the most ideal situation when looking at this specific correlation. 

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“Using data exclusively from the V.A. was not ideal. This group is not representative of the entire U.S. population. People who go to the V.A. are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status, have several medical conditions, and live in a rural area. They are also generally older and almost all men,” O’Donovan says. 

“However, the V.A. did a very good job of gathering all of this information and releasing it quickly. Without that kind of real-time record-keeping, she says, it would be incredibly difficult to get this much information on a recent phenomenon.”

The findings “are unlikely to be specific to Covid-19,” says O’Donovan, “but are much more likely to generalize to other infections. An obvious issue is risk for the flu and prevention of the flu.”

These findings give reason to consider mental health when crafting responses to Covid-19 and other infectious disease outbreaks.

“This study adds to a body of literature that’s telling us that patients with psychiatric disorders may well be — and do appear to be — a vulnerable population in this pandemic that might need targeted prevention efforts,” says O’Donovan. “We may need to be focused on integrating Covid prevention into mental health care and also integrating mental health care into our Covid prevention strategies because the two are so interlinked.”