PTSD Prevalent in Survivors of Severe COVID-19

Deborah Brauser

February 25, 2021

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

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may occur in up to a third of patients who recover from severe COVID-19 infection, new research suggests.

A study of more than 300 patients who presented to the emergency department (ED) with the virus showed a 30.2% prevalence for PTSD 30 to 120 days after COVID recovery.

Factors linked to higher rates of PTSD included experiencing delirium or agitation during the acute COVID phase or having persistent medical symptoms after hospitalization. 

Additional diagnoses, such as depressive and hypomanic episodes and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), were also present in some of the survivors.

"Previous coronavirus epidemics were associated with PTSD diagnoses in postillness stages, with meta-analytic findings indicating a prevalence of 32.2%," write the investigators, led by Delfina Janiri, MD, Department of Psychiatry, Fondazione Policlinico Universitario Agostino Gemelli IRCCS, Rome, Italy.

However, data focused specifically on COVID-19 have been "piecemeal," they add.

The findings were published online February 18 in a research letter in JAMA Psychiatry.  

A Traumatic Event

From April to October 2020, the researchers assessed 381 consecutive patients (100% white; 56.4% men; mean age, 55.3 years) who presented to the ED and subsequently participated in a health check at the Fondazione Policlinico Universitario Agostino Gemelli.

The mean length of stay for the 309 patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 was 18.4 days.

Results showed that 115 participants (30.2%) had PTSD, based on DSM-5 criteria; and 55.7% of the women had the disorder. Additional diagnoses found in the full patient population included:

  • Depressive episodes (17.3%)

  • GAD (7%)

  • Hypomanic episodes (0.7%)

  • Psychotic disorders (0.2%)

Patients with PTSD had higher rates than those without PTSD of a previous history of psychiatric disorders (34.8% vs 20.7%; P = .003) and of delirium or agitation during hospitalization, as assessed with the Confusion Assessment Method (16.5% vs 6.4%; P = .002).

In addition, 62.6% of those with PTSD had three or more persistent COVID-19 symptoms vs 37.2% of their counterparts without PTSD (P < .001).

After logistic regression analyses, significant factors associated with a PTSD diagnosis were persistent medical symptoms (P = .002), delirium or agitation (P = .02), and being female (P = .02).

The investigators note that their results are "in line" with findings reported in research examining other traumatic events. This includes about 30% of Hurricane Katrina survivors experiencing PTSD, as did around 25% of survivors of the 2011 "Great Japan Earthquake and Tsunami."

Study limitations cited include the "relatively small" size of the patient population, that it focused on only one participating center, and that it didn't include a control group of non-COVID patients who reported to the ED.

"Further longitudinal studies are needed to tailor therapeutic interventions and prevention strategies," the researchers write.

Janiri and four of the five other authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships . The other author, Gabriele Sani, MD, reported having received personal fees from Janssen, Angelini Spa, and Lundbeck outside the submitted work.

JAMA Psychiatry. Published online February 18, 2021. Research Letter

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