COVID-19: Delirium First, Depression, Anxiety, Insomnia Later?

Megan Brooks

May 20, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Severe COVID-19 may cause delirium in the acute stage of illness, followed by the possibility of depression, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) over the longer term, new research suggests.

Results from "the first systematic review and meta-analysis of the psychiatric consequences of coronavirus infection" showed that previous coronavirus epidemics were associated with a significant psychiatric burden in both the acute and post-illness stages.

"Most people with COVID-19 will not develop any mental health problems, even among those with severe cases requiring hospitalization, but given the huge numbers of people getting sick, the global impact on mental health could be considerable," co–lead investigator Jonathan Rogers, MRCPsych, Department of Psychiatry, University College London, United Kingdom, said in a news release.

The study was published online May 18 in Lancet Psychiatry.

Need for Monitoring, Support

The researchers analyzed 65 peer-reviewed studies and seven preprint articles with data on acute and post-illness psychiatric and neuropsychiatric features of patients who had been hospitalized with COVID-19, as well as two other diseases caused by coronaviruses ― severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), in 2002–2004, and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), in 2012.

"Our main findings are that signs suggestive of delirium are common in the acute stage of SARS, MERS, and COVID-19; there is evidence of depression, anxiety, fatigue, and post-traumatic stress disorder in the post-illness stage of previous coronavirus epidemics, but there are few data yet on COVID-19," the investigators write.

The data show that among patients acutely ill with SARS and MERS, 28% experienced confusion, 33% had depressed mood, 36% had anxiety, 34% suffered from impaired memory, and 42% had insomnia.

After recovery from SARS and MERS, sleep disorder, frequent recall of traumatic memories, emotional lability, impaired concentration, fatigue, and impaired memory were reported in more than 15% of patients during a follow-up period that ranged from 6 weeks to 39 months.

In a meta-analysis, the point prevalence in the post-illness stage was 32% for PTSD and about 15% for depression and anxiety.

In patients acutely ill with severe COVID-19, available data suggest that 65% experience delirium, 69% have agitation after withdrawal of sedation, and 21% have altered consciousness.

In one study, 33% of patients had a dysexecutive syndrome at discharge, characterized by symptoms such as inattention, disorientation, or poorly organized movements in response to command. Currently, data are very limited regarding patients who have recovered from COVID-19, the investigators caution.

"To avoid a large-scale mental health crisis, we hope that people who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 will be offered support, and monitored after they recover to ensure they do not develop mental illnesses, and are able to access treatment if needed," senior author Anthony David, FMedSci, from UCL Institute of Mental Health, said in a news release.

"While most people with COVID-19 will recover without experiencing mental illness, we need to research which factors may contribute to enduring mental health problems, and develop interventions to prevent and treat them," he added.

Be Prepared

The coauthors of a linked commentary say it makes sense, from a biological perspective, to merge data on these three coronavirus diseases, given the degree to which they resemble each other.

They caution, however, that treatment of COVID-19 seems to be different from treatment of SARS and MERS. In addition, the social and economic situation of COVID-19 survivors' return is completely different from that of SARS and MERS survivors.

Findings from previous coronavirus outbreaks are "useful, but might not be exact predictors of prevalences of psychiatric complications for patients with COVID-19," write Iris Sommer, MD, PhD, from University Medical Center Groningen, the Netherlands, and P. Roberto Bakker, MD, PhD, from Maastricht University Medical Center, the Netherlands.

"The warning from [this study] that we should prepare to treat large numbers of patients with COVID-19 who go on to develop delirium, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression is an important message for the psychiatric community," they add.

Sommer and Bakker also say the reported estimates of prevalence in this study should be interpreted with caution, "as true numbers of both acute and long-term psychiatric disorders for patients with COVID-19 might be considerably higher."

Funding for the study was provided by the Wellcome Trust, the UK National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the UK Medical Research Council, the NIHR Biomedical Research Center at the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and the University College London. The authors of the study and the commentary have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Lancet Psychiatry. Published online May 18 2020. Full text, Commentary

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