In a bulletin at the beginning of the year, I wrote about my journey with Long COVID. Thankfully, I’m doing better than I was back then, but I’m by no means fully recovered.
In fact, for most of January and February, I experienced deep psychiatric distress, that fell in line with psychosis. I would have a panic attack as I woke up in the morning and then one or two would follow during the day. This was accompanied by hallucinations and some disassociation with the world around me. This major anxiety I learned was not triggered by worrisome thoughts, but inflammation in the brain.
It was exhausting to go to appointments and have the doctors direct me to a psychological therapist rather than approaching my issue from a neurological perspective. At one point, I was at the hospital because I’d had six panic attacks in one day (and I’d never had panic attacks at any point in my life), and my symptoms were totally out of control. The hospital wanted to send me to the psych ward, and I refused, as I knew that they would not be treating my inflammatory brain condition, but rather my mental health. I wasn't having worrisome thoughts or anything like that-- I felt as though I was trapped in an anxious body, but didn't have any anxious thoughts. It was the weirdest and scariest thing that has ever happened to me.
Since Long COVID and lingering effects such as these are not yet front-page news, I’d like to discuss them here and shine a light on what’s not being reported.
A study conducted by Northwestern Medical School Neurology Department identifies the brain degeneration seen in severe COVID patients as encephalopathy, “a disease or disorder that degenerates the brain in some manner.” The study explored three groups of people who had all previously tested positive—those who were hospitalized, post-hospitalized or non-hospitalized.
Researchers looked for proof of central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) damage in both patient types. The presence of antigens (a type of proteins) can be indicative of a bodily occurrence. If the central nervous system becomes damaged, certain antigens in the blood plasma indicate this damage and scientists call those proteins biomarkers. To determine whether or not COVID patients had damage to their brains caused by the virus, they searched for specific biomarkers in the blood.
The two biomarkers that were shown to be higher or present in acute COVID patients were pGFAP and pNfl. Most importantly, these biomarkers were even higher in mild COVID patients who reported anxiety as a symptom.
What this shows is that there is inflammation/brain damage present in these patients that causes a change in brain function. Anxiety, specifically, was associated with astroglial cell activation. These are the cells in the brain that manage damage and repair.
These patients who reported anxiety showed increases in brain inflammation… a sign of brain damage directly resulting from the virus.
Aside from anxiety, one of the symptoms I’ve battled intermittently is tinnitus. That’s the high-pitched ringing in one or both of the ears that’s due to an internal perceived noise, but cannot be heard by anyone else. In aging populations, tinnitus is fairly common (15 – 20% of all people will experience it at some point). It can be caused by ear canal blockage, medications, pressure or other factors.
What may be surprising is that hearing itself is a lengthy process that requires both the ear and the auditory cortex of the brain to perceive sound. In tinnitus that results from the neuroinflammation associated with COVID, there can be nerve damage seen in the inner ear that sends faulty messages to the brain. That in turn leads to the brain perceiving sound that isn’t actually there.
Content warning: Suicide is discussed in the following paragraphs. Please be advised.
Depending on the severity of the tinnitus, it can be a minor annoyance or an incredibly disruptive, nerve-wracking event. The symptom, coupled with the other issues caused by Long COVID, was so distressing for Texas Roadhouse CEO/noted philanthropist Kent Taylor, it was implied that it was a contributing factor to his suicide last year, when his struggle to recover became unbearable. Sadly, he’s not the only one to take his life because of the impact of the virus.
Suicide and Long COVID
According to the European Respiratory Journal, patients with acute COVID infections showed a depression rate of 42% and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) of 96%. In addition to the depression, the isolation that comes with not having their symptoms believed/validated by medical professionals is being felt by survivors as well. Long-term fatigue is one of the most commonly reported symptoms that is mistaken for laziness or depression, which further isolates the patient.
Unfortunately these debilitating long-term COVID symptoms are resulting in higher rates of suicide.
“Dawson’s Creek” writer, Heidi Ferrer, contracted COVID in April of 2020. By the following May, her health had declined so much she was bedridden due to constant pain and severe neurological tremors. A month later, she took her own life. She was 50.
Dr. Jill Stroller, a 59-year-old pediatrician from New Jersey, recovered from acute COVID, but was left with Long COVID symptoms, which included brain fog and depression. She committed suicide because she believed she’d never truly feel like herself again.
The world needs to hear their stories and listen to the current patients struggling with long-haul symptoms to better learn about how to prevent these tragedies from continuing.
The more science we put behind this, the sooner we can develop solutions to help alleviate all of this pain and suffering, and give people their lives back.
If you or someone you love has had thoughts of harming themselves, please call 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers 24/7 free, confidential support for people in distress and can assist professionals with resources to help in prevention and crisis situations.