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Doctors: Contracting COVID-19 can lead to PTSD, anxiety, depression

Posted at 10:12 PM, Nov 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-28 00:18:07-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Doctors are finding that a significant number of people who contract COVID-19 are left with lasting impacts long after the physical symptoms disappear.

There's a mental health component arising, and doctors say it may affect someone for months to years after they recover from the virus.

Tressa Smith knows what that's like firsthand.

Pictures show what her life was like before she tested positive for COVID-19 in April. The smiling mom has lots of photos with her family, many of them happy selfies.

Seven months later, she feels completely different.

"I can definitely say I'm not the same person that I was before I had COVID," Smith said in an interview with FOX 13 Friday.

Smith became a COVID-19 "Long Hauler," someone who continues to experience physical symptoms from COVID-19 for months after contracting the virus.

She described symptoms from fainting, to insomnia, to brain fog and memory loss, to fatigue.

It took a toll on her mental wellbeing.

"I just got really depressed, really anxious, really... really, my outlook on life really seemed to change," Smith said.

She expressed having constant worries over if she would contract COVID-19 again, if her symptoms would ever go away, and if she will feel better. She also indicated she feels the community treats someone with COVID-19, especially a Long Hauler, differently.

Smith told a story of trying to give plasma and being told that being a "Long Hauler" isn't real.

"I questioned all of my beliefs," she said. "Because I could not understand why this was happening to me."

Dr. Travis Mickelson, medical director of mental health integration for Intermountain Healthcare, explained how they're seeing mental health impacts on many COVID-19 patients.

"It is going to be an issue for a significant percentage of our patients who develop COVID," he said.

Dr. Mickelson, who is also a child and adolescent psychiatrist, said that early studies suggest 20 percent of adults who contract COVID-19 will have some post-COVID mental health issues like PTSD, anxiety and depression that could last for months to years.

"That likely will depend on what their course of illness was," Dr. Mickelson said. "We are more concerned about those patients who, part of their journey involved the ICU."

He said they expect to deal with more post-traumatic stress-like reactions and problems with the population of COVID-19 patients who end up hospitalized.

This also extends to family members of COVID-19 hospital patients and family of those who died from the virus, he indicated, because of the potential trauma one might experience if they are the child or spouse of someone in the ICU and aren't able to see that person as they pass away.

A top priority for Intermountain Healthcare now, he said, is to increase the number of support groups and grief support groups for those who are dealing with the trauma of experiencing COVID-19 and hospitalization, and for those who lost loved ones due to the virus.

Dr. Mickelson explained that Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah are beginning to develop specific clinics and programs as well.

He encourages people to visit their primary care doctor and to be "confident and brave and courageous enough to ask for help."

"We need you to reach out and connect to your primary care provider so that you can get the support and resources that you need," he urged.

That's exactly what Smith did.

She said she now sees a therapist for her complex PTSD, who has been able to give her calming exercises and relaxation techniques. Smith meditates every morning.

"My physician has put me on some medications to help me with that as well," she said.

While life hasn't returned to the way it was before she contracted COVID-19, Smith said she's been feeling better physically for the past month and a half.

She's part of the Utah COVID-19 Long Haulers support group on Facebook and aims to help others get through this.

"We're here to help you. Reach out to us, reach out to your therapists, reach out to your doctors, and find the help that you need" she said, adding, "Because you are definitely not alone."