MADISON (WKOW) -- Scientists believe the virus that causes COVID-19 can have biological effects that increase the risk of developing mental health disorders.
"For some people, for any number of reasons, the immune system kick that the virus causes then sets in motion long-lasting changes in how the brain works," Dr. Charles Raison said Saturday. "It diminishes the brain's ability to work effectively, and so you get all these symptoms."
Raison is a professor in UW-Madison's School of Human Ecology and a widely-cited psychiatry researcher.
The theory of a link between COVID-19 and mental health is supported by data from a University of Oxford study, where researchers found nearly 1 in 5 people who had COVID-19 were diagnosed with a mental health disorder within three months of getting sick.
The study encompassed the health records of 69 million people. For patients who were sick from other diseases, about 1 in 10 were diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
Raison said when the virus activates the body's immune system, it leads to inflammation. Those inflammatory pathways send signals to the brain that make it predisposed to depression and anxiety.
Raison said there is evidence of similar inflammation happening with other severe viruses and in patients who undergo chemotherapy.
But biological changes aren't the only factor that contributes to a higher risk of mental illness. Societal factors, like disrupted social connections, uncertainty about the future and the threat of loss, can also add to feelings of anxiety and depression.
"COVID is sort of a perfect storm of the sorts of things that make human beings depressed and anxious," Raison said.
He said he and others in his field are concerned by the marked increase of mental health struggles since the pandemic started, particularly because it's affecting people who only have mild cases of the disease.
"Many of us in the field feel that there's going to be ... a tsunami of mental illness that flows in the wake of the COVID pandemic," he said. "The mental disorder fallout is going to grow and is going to be with us for quite a while."
Raison said it's too early to know if the mental effects of contracting COVID-19 are permanent, but he said some clues can be found in coronavirus long haulers. Many people are still struggling with side effects of the disease months after getting infected.
"I very much worry that there will be a group of people that will have long-term struggles in their mental functioning as a result of having caught COVID-19," he said.
Raison told 27 News he hopes communities will devote more resources to helping people get mental health treatment because he said, if left untreated, mental illness can have wide-ranging effects on individuals and society.
"It should really give us a chill," Raison said. "It's really nerve wracking. We discount what this virus does at our own peril. You don't have to die, you don't have to end up in an ICU to be really messed up by it."