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The psychiatric impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are far-reaching

In a new study, experts report that COVID-19 worsens the symptoms of mental illness and increases substance abuse. Furthermore, social isolation can cause many different adverse psychiatric effects that are known to be linked to loneliness.

The potential neurological complications of COVID-19 are alarmingly concerning, but many of the details remain unclear. To investigate, the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology supported three separate workshops to examine the psychiatric consequences of the pandemic.

A workshop led by Dr. Mark Weiser, Chief Psychiatrist at the Sheba Medical Center and Professor of Psychiatry at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, was focused on efforts to improve the psychiatric outcomes of COVID-19. 

The experts reviewed early studies of neurological complications in COVID-19 patients across China. They also discussed strategies that have been developed in Israel and Spain to safely treat hospitalized patients with both psychiatric illness and COVID-19 infection.

“The COVID19 pandemic has posed major difficulties in the treatment of severely ill psychiatric patients, some of whom present with challenging combinations of behavioral and respiratory symptoms, with difficulties keeping social distancing, hygiene and wearing masks,” said Dr. Weiser. “In non-psychiatric patients we are beginning to learn about the long-term psychiatric sequelae of COVID-19 infection.”

Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), led a group that discussed the specific vulnerabilities of individuals with substance abuse who contract COVID-19. For example, COVID-19 may interact with substance abuse to worsen the severity of illness. 

“The U.S. is now facing two intersecting health crises, the ongoing opioid overdose epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. Regrettably, each has the potential to exacerbate the effects of the other,” said Dr. Volkow. 

“NIDA has swiftly responded to the COVID-19 crisis by supporting research in areas of basic science, prevention, treatment, epidemiology, and implementation, particularly at the intersection with SUD. I am hopeful that [this] will contribute to lessening the impact of the collision between the opioid and COVID-19 crises.”

Dr. Dilip Jeste, the Senior Associate Dean for Healthy Aging and Senior Care at UC San Diego, led a team that examined the potential impact of social isolation on individuals with psychiatric illness, as well as the effects on the general population as a whole. 

Loneliness is known to cause physical health impacts that are similar to those caused by smoking and obesity. Loneliness is also associated with an increased risk of depression, substance abuse, suicide, and dementia.”The Covid-19 pandemic has moved the already important need for research into neurobiology and interventions for loneliness and social isolation to the front burner,” said Dr. Jeste.

The findings were presented at the 59th Virtual Annual Meeting of The American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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