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Can the corona virus also lead to mental disorder?

There is a lot to suggest that the extreme societal changes caused by the corona virus exacerbate existing mental disorder and increase the number of new cases. Professor Søren Dinesen Østergaard has been given the opportunity to investigate this hypothesis with the help of a DKK one million grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

We will experience the consequences in two waves, says Søren Dinesen Østergaard: Firstly an acute worsening among people who already live with a mental disorder and then following this, some type of ‘post-corona reaction’ where we see a chain of derived psychological effects. Photo: Melissa B. Kirkeby Yildirim.

Working from home, isolation and apocalyptic images of deserted streets with rows of closed shops is a surreal situation for everyone. But for people who already suffer from a mental disorder such as anxiety, OCD, depression or schizophrenia, daily life with the corona virus can be especially worrying. For vulnerable people who have not yet developed a mental disorder, the extreme situation could also possibly act as a direct trigger.

This much – though not more – is already clear to Professor Søren Dinesen Østergaard, who has just received a fast track grant of DKK 1,050,000 from the Novo Nordisk Foundation for the Mental Health Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic research project.

The money will be used to study and map out the scope of mental disorders related to the COVID-19 pandemic, with no time to lose according to Søren Dinesen Østergaard, who works at both the Department of Clinical Medicine and at Aarhus University Hospital - Psychiatry. He expects that the first research results will be ready in no more than a couple of weeks and stresses that the knowledge accumulated will be very welcome.

“It’s to be expected that the pandemic will have an effect on people who either live with, or are at a risk of developing, mental disorder. This is also the perception that my colleagues in mental health have on the basis of sporadic clinical observations. But there is a lack of precise knowledge about the extent of this problem – and our ambition is to provide this," says Søren Dinesen Østergaard.

Consequences in two waves

At the moment, focus is on treating and reducing spread of the infectious disease COVID-19, which is caused by the corona virus; however, Søren Dinesen Østergaard fears that the indirect psychological consequences can be just as serious as the purely physical. And maybe worse.

"I believe we’ll experience the consequences in two waves. Firstly an acute worsening among people who already live with a mental disorder and then following this, some type of ‘post-corona reaction’ where we see a chain of derived psychological effects that have a broader impact on the population. We will see reactions to lost jobs, financial struggle, interrupted schooling, families under pressure, domestic violence, self-medication with alcohol and drugs, reduced exercise and so on and so on,” says Søren Dinesen Østergaard.

Studies of acute and delayed effects

On the basis of the above theory, Søren Dinesen Østergaard and his research group will carry out two studies. First they will focus on the acute phase and examine whether people who are in contact with the mental health services experience a worsening of their symptoms due to the many changes undergone by society and the fear of the corona virus. This part of the study is based on analysis of patient records from the psychiatric hospitals in the Central Denmark Region. 

Subsequently – and once the pandemic is over – the researchers will examine the number of new cases of mental disorder occurring in the period before, during and after the pandemic, on the basis of data from the Danish health registers. And here the hypothesis is that a post-corona reaction will emerge once the infectious disease itself has passed.


Professor Søren Dinesen Østergaard
Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University
Department for Depression and Anxiety Disorders, Aarhus University Hospital - Mental Health Services
Email: SOEOES@rm.dk
Mobile: (+45) 6128 2753