There is a growing list of mental health concerns for COVID long haulers and I was reminded of this when I recently talked with a neighbor who had a bad case of COVID-19 and has struggled with long-term damage to his lungs. Before his diagnosis, he was one of the more active people I knew. In his 50’s, he was always cutting his lawn, playing golf, going to dinner, working on projects or his job. His diagnosis of COVID had a massive impact on his activity level. He now gets winded walking short distances or doing small tasks due to the lung damage and his blood oxygen levels dropping. He said to me the other day, “My doctor is worried about me, but I think I think I can live like this.” As a therapist, I understood his doctor’s concern. However, someone who had been so active will need time to process losing that ability. While today they might say, “I can live like this,” that might only be a snapshot of the passing present moment, and tomorrow they may feel grief and hopelessness. While we all have bad days, as therapists, we want to make sure that someone has the necessary support to process such a profound change in functioning and mobility.
Signs of concern:
- You notice a change in their outlook about their condition. If they start isolating themselves even more and seem depressed, they might need support.
- Do they have post-traumatic stress disorder from their experience of COVID-19? If someone was hospitalized after becoming unable to breathe, if they were intubated, the experience might have been horrifying, especially if they didn’t know if they would recover. Such experiences can cause depression, anxiety, nightmares, or insomnia, requiring more support to process and enable recovery.
- Sleeping too much or too little and having no motivation are potential flags for depression.
- Profound hypervigilance: Are they wearing a full face mask, face shield, gloves, and boots to get their mail from the mailbox? If so, it’s a sign they might need help.
- Mental fog – The mental fogginess of long haulers can be challenging. I have talked to several doctors who after having COVID, struggled with its neurological after-effects. For people who pride themselves on their mental acuity, it is terribly scary to suddenly develop the fog, especially not knowing whether it is permanent. It can even threaten their ability to function in their jobs.
Things COVID Long Haulers can do.
- Join a COVID Long Haulers support group in their town or online (Reddit, Facebook)
- There is a growing amount of evidence that physical therapy and exercise can help people with long-haulers to recover (consult with your doctor first).
- Get a therapist to support them. If the experience was traumatic, look for an EMDR therapist.
- Continue to scan for resources online as symptoms emerge. COVID-19 is a very new condition, and we are constantly learning about the best ways to respond to its after-effects.
- Long haulers COVID has been designated as a disability, so you might be eligible for additional resources.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention the need to support those who have lost loved ones to COVID. I was reminded of this after talking to an old friend who was visiting Austin yesterday and learned her father had recently died due to complications resulting from COVID-19 exposure.