Surviving COVID-19 and the Fear of Psychosis

Two years into the pandemic and I finally got sick with COVID-19. While being incapacitated in bed or on the couch was not fun, getting sick allowed me to face my worst fear. Out of all the things that could happen — respiratory problems, loss of taste and smell, or the chronic fatigue and persisting disability of Long-COVID — what I feared most about getting sick was a COVID-induced psychotic episode that would land me in the psych ward.

According to one report published in Psychiatry Research, “COVID-19 infection is associated with a host of neuropsychiatric symptoms, including psychosis, even in individuals without previous mental illness.” Apparently this is due to the hyper-inflammatory state COVID-19-induces. This makes complete sense to me. I have experienced the inflammation that accompanies my manic episodes causing acne, rashes, psoriasis, eye inflammation, irritation, and even retinal detachment, not to mention psychosis.

Since the reaction to the vaccine can “recreate a mild version of the actual infection” some people even reported psychosis associated with mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccination, demonstrating a very legitimate impulse behind vaccine hesitancy for people with concerns about their mental health.

Although I do not have any physical comorbidities, I was acutely aware of the understated fact that people with mental illness are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and of having negative outcomes such as hospitalization or death. This is because of the way in which mental illness changes behavior and impacts one’s ability to practice self-care. The inequitable access to mental health care, especially in low income communities of color, results in psychiatric distress, especially under the fear, anxiety, and isolation caused by the pandemic. Sadly, people with mental illness are more likely to already suffer from chronic health problems that make having COVID-19 infection a possible death sentence.

According to the CDC, among the medical conditions likely to make a person very sick with COVID-19 include mood disorders and schizophrenia spectrum disorders. Researchers have found that mortality rates are higher among those with a prior psychiatric history compared to those without a history of mental illness.

While I am fortunate to have access to mental health care which has given me the coping tools to manage my mental illness effectively, I still feared that I was predisposed to experiencing a psychotic break. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that although my body was debilitated, my mood and mental state was untouched. I couldn’t do work, but I was able to binge TV and just be. It was almost a welcome reprieve from my drive to Go go go! without pause. I was able to reassess how much I was putting on my plate and took some steps to ease my load for the coming months. I realized that if I ask for support, people are willing to step in so I can take a break.

Although my whole household is currently recovering from COVID, we were not all severely sick at the same time. I took the first hit and my husband and daughter were so abundantly nurturing. My little baby girl is only two and she was always eager to bring mommy water and snacks. When I was wrapped in a blanket curled up on the couch, she would come and tuck me in by pulling up the covers so my entire neck was covered. It was a precious moment.

Now that I’m feeling better, my husband is experiencing the brunt of the illness and now I’m trying to do my fair share of juggling parenting, keeping up with school work, and making sure we have the basics to get through each day so that he can rest and recover.

I almost have no words to tie this blog post up neatly with a bow because there is nothing nice and neat about what we have all collectively experienced in these past two, going on three, years. I’m just grateful that COVID has not knocked me off the mental stability I have found and work hard to maintain. I am grateful I am in good health although I am still recovering from COVID. I know that with more variants there will be more opportunities to get sick, but at least now I am a little less afraid and trust I have the tools to handle whatever gets thrown my way.

Image Description: Against a light coral pink backdrop, a person in yellow coveralls clutches their ventilator mask while spraying disinfectant into the air from an aerosol can.

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