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Psychiatrists are uncovering connections between viruses and mental health. They’re surprising.

Immune responses to viruses like SARS-CoV-2 may affect mental health, and vice versa. Doctors are uncovering exactly how.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, one of the biggest questions was: Why do some people get so much sicker than others? It’s a question that has forced researchers to confront some deep mysteries of the human body, and come to conclusions that have startled them.

By the fall of 2020, psychiatrists were reporting that among the many groups who were high risk, people with psychiatric disorders, broadly, seemed to be getting more severe forms of Covid-19 at a higher rate. Katlyn Nemani, an NYU neuropsychiatrist, decided to dig deeper, asking: Just how much more at risk, and which conditions?

In January, she and a group of colleagues published a study of 7,348 Covid-19 patients in New York. One finding was stark: People with a schizophrenia spectrum diagnosis faced more than two and a half times the average person’s risk of dying from Covid-19, even after controlling for the many other factors that affect Covid-19 outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, smoking, obesity, and demographic factors — age, sex, and race.

“That was a pretty shocking finding,” Nemani says. The patients all were hospitalized in the same medical system, in the same region, which implies they weren’t receiving radically different treatments, she says. In sum, it all suggests that the risk was closely linked to the mental illness itself and not to some other variable.

Since then, more studies have come out — as well as meta-studies pooling the conclusions of those studies — showing worse Covid-19 outcomes among people with diagnosed mental health disorders including depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

Some of this isn’t surprising; a lot of people with mental health issues experience a general increased risk of poor health outcomes. But the pandemic started to shine a brighter light on why, bolstering a hypothesis that’s been accruing evidence in recent years.

It appears that something in the body, something biological associated with these disorders, may be at play. “That suggests there’s a physiologic vulnerability there in these folks,” said Charles Raison, a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

It’s not necessarily that people with schizophrenia or mood disorders are more likely to become infected with Covid-19. Rather, once they are infected, “the outcomes are worse,” Nemani says.

Depending on the study and the severity of the mental health diagnosis, people with these conditions are, roughly, between 1.5 and 2 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than average, after adjusting for other risk factors (unadjusted risk is even higher). The level of increased risk, Nemani says, is "on par with what we’re seeing for other well-established risk factors like heart disease and diabetes."

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