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How much can mental health affect Long COVID symptoms? A new study suggests quite a bit

The study found infected and uninfected people both had post-COVID conditions six months later, mainly relating to initial symptom severity and psychosocial factors.

CLEVELAND — A recent Norwegian study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at what may have caused Long COVID symptoms in those infected with the virus.

Researchers studied young people aged 12 to 25 between December of 2020 and May of 2021. 382 had COVID-19, 85 did not, and those who were infected were assessed at the beginning of their infection and then six months later before compared to the control group of those who did not have the coronavirus. 

The study found nearly 50% of both groups reported post-COVID conditions six months later. These conditions weren't specific to a viral infection, but more relating to initial symptom severity and psychosocial factors.

"50% of people having persistent problems six months later is an eye-opening finding, but it was about the same in both groups, suggesting that it wasn't the COVID that was causing those persistent symptoms," Dr. Frank Esper, pediatric infectious disease specialist and Cleveland Clinic Children's, said. "Now, I think what's very important is that we don't belittle the fact that they're still having symptoms. We're not saying that it's all in your head or that this isn't something that's very serious, because we know it is."

The study took place in Norway under lockdown during the winter months, when daylight is limited. Doctors weren't surprised to see the mental health aspect, but say it needs perspective.  

"It doesn't make a lot of sense to separate mental health and physical health, because the brain is physical," Dr. Amy Edwards, pediatric infectious disease specialist at UH Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital, told 3News. "It's physically inside of our head, so anything that's happening to our brain is physical as well. So, I don't like separating the two."

Both doctors say there is still so much we don't know about the long-term effects of COVID-19 on both the body and the brain, and it may be years before we find appropriate treatments. Still, mental health and COVID is something that is being discussed. 

If you'd like to learn more, NAMI Greater Cleveland is holding a webinar called "Understanding Neurological and Psychiatric Symptoms of Long COVID." The Zoom conference is scheduled for April 18 at noon, and you can register here.

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