What is ‘COVID Psychosis' and What Are the Symptoms?

In some cases, people with no history of mental health challenges have reported developing severe psychotic symptoms after being diagnosed with COVID-19

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In some cases, people with no history of mental health challenges have reported developing severe psychotic symptoms after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

It's being described by some health care professionals as "COVID psychosis."

So what is it and what are the symptoms?

Dr. Danesh Alam, a psychiatrist with Northwestern Medicine, says "post-COVID psychosis" is rare, but as a result of reported cases, researchers are looking to see how COVID affects the human brain.

"Labs suggest that the virus may actually be crossing the blood brain barrier, and some of the changes that we see in [the] brain related to major psychotic disorders are being observed," the doctor explained.

Dr. Royce Lee, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Chicago, said COVID psychosis is a relatively new phenomenon because COVID-19 is a relatively new virus, but the idea that viruses can trigger a psychiatric illness is not new.

"There are many other previous viruses which caused these kinds of syndromes," he said. "So I guess we can say the newness comes from the newness of the virus. And also, because it's new, the depth of our understanding of this is quite shallow. We don't yet know what exactly about the viral illness can cause the psychotic disorder."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a peer-reviewed study released late last year showed that, in patients with no history of psychiatric disorders, the probability of a first psychiatric disorder diagnosed during up to 90 days after a COVID-19 diagnosis was higher than among patients who contracted the flu or other respiratory infections.

Royce Lee said while he believes there's a possibility coronavirus can lead to such "COVID psychosis," it's also difficult to prove and "really rare."

"In our capacity in the hospital on the console liaison service, or in the emergency department, we are certainly seeing cases of people with COVID who have very serious psychiatric problems," he said. "The issue that we have is it's very difficult to prove in these cases that COVID is the cause of their illness because it could be a coincidence. However, enough cases have shown up where I think while some of us, such as myself, might have been somewhat skeptical at the first reports, I think most of us are growing less skeptical as we see more and more cases where we're having to ask ourselves if COVID plays a causal role in either the seriousness of the problem or just the entire problem."

Royce Lee said symptoms of "COVID psychosis" can differ widely from patient to patient.

"In some cases, we can be pretty sure that COVID is playing a role because they might have neurological symptoms that really prove that the virus is affecting the brain. And you know that I think people are aware of some of them, such as loss of smell and taste or even confusion or delirium," he said. "In other cases, we don't see strong neurological symptoms, but we see just the psychiatric symptoms. We used to think of these as just psychological symptoms like hearing voices, thinking about suicide or mood changes."

Jennifer Price, of suburban Morris, believes her husband, Ben, contracted what's been referred to as "post-COVID psychosis" before his death.

Ben Price, a beloved father of two and farmer, died by suicide just days after being treated and released from the hospital for COVID.

"This was another level of something that took over his brain," Jennifer Price explained.

Jennifer Price said her husband hadn't experienced mental health issues in the past, and as the days went on, she noticed a drastic change in his behavior.

"He was just really at a level of panic and paranoia and was scared," she said. "He just kept saying I'm just so scared, I'm just so scared, and he couldn't even tell you what he was scared about."

Jennifer Price thought her husband was suffering from brain fog. Doctors prescribed Ben Price anxiety medication, but his condition only got worse.

"There was nothing we could do to get him to relax and calm down," Jennifer Price said. "That was heartbreaking."

As more studies are being completed, Jennifer Price hopes that by sharing her husband's story, others' lives can be saved.

"We would have done something different had we known about this," she told NBC 5.

Doctors say if you notice a change in your loved one's behavior, even if they're hospitalized for COVID-19, reach out to a doctor immediately, so the symptoms can be caught and treated earlier.

The study reported by the CDC suggests health care professionals "be on the lookout for new onset psychiatric disorders, even in patients with no previous psychiatric diagnoses."

"For the person who gets COVID and has persistent chronic symptoms, you know we're calling them long haulers, we think the most important thing is to report those symptoms of fatigue- and it's mostly fatigue- report them to their primary care doctor to get advice on what can be tried," Royce Lee said.

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