Why the higher risk
While noting that people facing poverty and the other issues mentioned above are certainly more vulnerable to hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19, Crystal Clark, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine says there may be other reasons people with mental illnesses might be at risk.
She speculates that the cause may at least in part be linked to how COVID-19 affects the brain, which scientists still don’t quite understand. But, she says, âThe COVID virus attacks the central nervous system … and anything that attacks the central nervous system hits your brain. This is where your emotions are controlled and your mood is managed.
Clark suspects that while mental health issues could make COVID-19 worse, COVID-19 could also make mental health issues worse. âThere is something going on in these different areas of the brain that is causing changes in the emotions,â she says. âWe are seeing mood swings in people who have never had mood symptoms, so for those who are suffering how it could add fuel to the fire or be a trigger for an episode or a worsening. “
Advocates, however, say that answering “why” there is an apparent link between mental illness and complications from COVID-19 is less important – at least in the midst of a public health crisis – than addressing the problem. âWhy would schizophrenia have anything to do with an increased risk of death? Dailey asks, rhetorically. “We might not know the answer to that question, but we do know it exists … It’s just one of those things where if you follow the science, it’s clear what you need to do.”
Kim Painter is a contributing writer specializing in health and psychology. She writes frequently for AARP’s Staying Sharp and previously worked as a journalist and health columnist at United States today.
Christina Ianzito is the travel and book editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.