CHICAGO/LONDON, Sept. 8 (Reuters) – Scott Taylor never recovered from COVID-19.
The 56-year-old, who contracted the disease in the fall of 2020, had not yet recovered about 18 months later when he committed suicide at his home near Dallas, having lost his health, memory and money.
“No one cares. No one wants to take the time to listen,” Taylor wrote in a final text to a friend, referring to the plight of millions of chronic COVID patients, a disabling condition that can last for months and years after initial infection.
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“I can’t do laundry without complete exhaustion, pain, fatigue, pain all up and down my spine. The world is spinning with dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. It seems I’m saying things and I don’t know what I’m saying.” Taylor added.
Chronic COVID is a complex health condition that can be difficult to diagnose as it has more than 200 symptoms — some of which may resemble other illnesses — from fatigue and cognitive impairment to pain, fever and palpitations, according to World Health. Organization.
There is no authoritative data on the frequency of suicide among sufferers. Several scientists from organizations including the US National Institutes of Health and the UK’s data collection agency are beginning to study a possible link following evidence of increased cases of depression and suicidal thoughts among people with prolonged COVID, as well as a growing number of known deaths.
“I’m sure COVID has long been associated with suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts, and suicide plans and the risk of suicidal death. We don’t have epidemiological data,” said Leo Sher, a psychiatrist at the Mount Health System. Sinai in New. York who studies emotional disorders and suicidal behavior.
Among the important questions now being investigated by researchers: could the risk of suicide increase among patients because the virus is changing the biology of the brain? Or does the loss of their ability to function as they once did push people over the edge, as can happen with other chronic health conditions?
Sher said pain disorders in general are a strong predictor of suicide, as is brain inflammation, which several studies have linked to prolonged COVID.
“We have to take this seriously,” he added.
A Reuters analysis by Seattle-based health data firm Truveta showed that patients with prolonged COVID were nearly twice as likely to receive a first-time antidepressant prescription within 90 days of their initial COVID diagnosis compared to people diagnosed with COVID only.
The analysis was based on data from 20 major US hospital systems, including more than 1.3 million adults with COVID-19 and 19,000 with a chronic diagnosis of COVID between May 2020 and July 2022.
‘WE DON’T KNOW THE AMOUNT’
The potential long-term effects of COVID-19 are poorly understood, with governments and scientists now beginning to systematically study the area as they emerge from the pandemic that blindsided much of the world.
Although most chronic COVID patients recover over time, about 15% still develop symptoms after 12 months, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Measurement and Evaluation (IHME). There is no proven treatment and the debilitating symptoms can leave patients unable to work.
The effects of COVID-19 that may be associated with an increased risk of mental illness and suicide are serious; in the United States alone, the condition has affected up to 23 million people, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated in March.
The prolonged period of COVID has also pushed about 4.5 million out of work, equivalent to about 2.4% of the American workforce, employment expert Katie Bach of the Brookings Institution told Congress in July.
Worldwide, nearly 150 million people are estimated to develop chronic COVID-19 in the first two years of the pandemic, according to the IHME.
In many developing countries, the lack of long-term screening for COVID makes the picture even worse, said Murad Khan, a professor of psychiatry at Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, who is part of an international group of experts studying the risk. of suicide linked to COVID. -19.
“We have a big problem, but we don’t know the magnitude of the problem,” he said.
HITTING THE BREAKING POINT
Time is a scarce commodity for a growing number of chronic COVID patients who say they are running out of hope and money, according to Reuters interviews with several patients, family members and pathologists.
For Taylor, who lost his job selling genomic tests to doctors in a round of layoffs in the summer of 2020, the worst came when his insurance through his former employer was set to expire and his application for social security benefits was denied. the relative said.
“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” his older brother Mark Taylor said.
Heidi Ferrer, a 50-year-old TV screenwriter from Kansas, killed herself in May 2021 to escape the tremors and excruciating pain that left her unable to walk or sleep after contracting COVID more than a year earlier, her husband Nick Guthe said.
Guthe, a filmmaker who has been a long-time advocate for COVID patients since his wife’s death, said that until this past winter, he had not heard of other people taking their own lives within the network of chronic COVID patients.
“Now they come every week,” he added.
Survivor Corps, an advocacy group for chronic COVID patients, said it polled its membership in May and found that 44% of nearly 200 members said they had considered suicide.
Lauren Nichols, a board member at the long-term COVID support group Body Politic, said that through communication with family members on social media she knew of more than 50 people with long-term COVID who had killed themselves, although Reuters could not independently confirm the cases. .
Nichols, 34, a logistics specialist at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Boston, says he himself has considered suicide several times because of the prolonged COVID, which he has suffered for more than two years.
Exit International advises English speakers how to seek assisted dying in Switzerland, where euthanasia is legal with certain checks. Fiona Stewart, director, said the organisation, which does not monitor outcomes after issuing advice, had received several inquiries from long-term COVID patients during the pandemic and was now getting about one a week.
LONG COVID AND OMICRON
The US National Institutes of Health is tracking mental health impacts as part of its $470 million RECOVER study in the long run of COVID. Early results on anxiety and depression levels are expected in early September, but information on suicide will take longer, said Dr. Stuart Katz, lead researcher.
“What we do know is that people with chronic illnesses are more likely to have suicidal thoughts, suicidal attempts and complete suicide,” said Richard Gallagher, assistant professor of child psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, who is part of RECOVER.
On the question of whether the virus changes the brain, Gallagher said there is evidence that COVID can cause brain inflammation — which has been linked to suicide and depression — even among people who had mild illness.
“There may be a direct, in some way, toxic effects of the virus, and part of it will be inflammation,” he said.
Long-term COVID on average reduces overall health by 21% – equivalent to total deafness or traumatic brain injury, the University of Washington’s IHME found.
Although some experts expected Omicron to be less likely to cause COVID in the long term, official UK data released this month found that 34% of the country’s 2 million people with COVID-19 developed their symptoms after Omicron infection.
A UK government advisory group is investigating the risk of suicide in long-term COVID patients compared to the general population while the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is whether it can assess a patient’s long-term risk of suicide as it does for people with other diseases. , like cancer.
“Health conditions that are disabling for a long time can increase the risk of suicide, hence the concern about long-term COVID,” said Louis Appleby, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Manchester and an adviser to the British government.
Indeed, research in the UK and Spain found a six-fold increased risk of suicide among patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), another post-viral illness with symptoms similar to long-term COVID, compared to the general population. in general.
The UK’s network of long-term COVID treatment centers is also heavily oversubscribed, adding to the hopelessness of some; in June, the latest month on record, only a third of patients received an appointment within six weeks of being referred by their GP, and another third had to wait more than 15 weeks.
Ruth Oshikanlu, a former midwife and health visitor in London turned pregnancy coach, said her long-term health problems with COVID combined to push her close to the edge. When his business stalled for a while due to debt problems after struggling to work, he felt his life was over.
“I was crying to the accountant, and the guy stopped me – I think he didn’t want to be the last person to talk to me,” recalled the 48-year-old.
“What COVID gives you is a lot of time to think,” he said. “I didn’t think about stopping, thankfully, because of my son. But I know a lot of people who have had those suicidal thoughts.”
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Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Jennifer Rigby in London; Edited by Michele Gershberg and Pravin Char