Long COVID link to suicide: scientists warn of hidden crisis


Long COVID link to suicide: scientists warn of hidden crisis

September 8, 2022

Scott Taylor never got away from COVID-19.

The 56-year-old, who contracted the disease in spring 2020, still hadn’t recovered about 18 months later when he killed himself at his home near Dallas after losing his health, memory and money would have.

“Nobody cares. No one wants to take the time to listen,” Taylor wrote in a recent text to a friend, speaking of the plight of millions of patients with long COVID, a disabling condition that can last months and years after initial infection.

“I can hardly do laundry without being completely exhausted, aching, tired, with pain all over my spine. The world spins dizzy, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. It seems like I’m saying stuff and have no idea what I’m saying,” Taylor added.

Long COVID is a complex condition that can be difficult to diagnose because it presents with a range of more than 200 symptoms — some of which may resemble other illnesses — from exhaustion and cognitive impairment to pain, fever and palpitations, according to World Health.

Reliable data on the suicide frequency of those affected are not available. Several scientists from organizations including the US National Institutes of Health and the UK Data Collection Authority are beginning to investigate a possible link after evidence of increased cases of depression and suicidal thoughts in people with long COVID, as well as a growing number of known deaths.

“I am sure that COVID has long been associated with suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, suicide plans and the risk of suicidal death. We just don’t have any epidemiological data,” said Leo Sher, a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Health System in New York who studies mood disorders and suicidal behavior.

One of the key questions researchers are now investigating: Is the risk of suicide in patients possibly increasing because the virus changes brain biology? Or does the loss of their ability to function bring people to the abyss, as can other long-term health problems?

Sher said pain disorders in general are a very strong predictor of suicide, as is inflammation in the brain, which several studies have linked to long COVID.

“We should take this seriously,” he added.

An analysis for Reuters, conducted by Seattle-based health data company Truveta, showed that patients with long-term COVID were almost twice as likely to be prescribed a first-time antidepressant within 90 days of their initial COVID diagnosis, compared to people at who have only been diagnosed with COVID.

The analysis was based on data from 20 major US hospital systems, including more than 1.3 million adults diagnosed with COVID and 19,000 with a long-term COVID diagnosis between May 2020 and July 2022.


Little is known about the potential long-term effects of COVID-19 as governments and scientists are only now beginning to systematically study the area, emerging from a pandemic that has taken even much of the world by surprise.

While many long-term COVID patients recover over time, about 15% still have symptoms at 12 months, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). There is no proven treatment and debilitating symptoms can render sufferers unable to work.

The impact of a long COVID, potentially associated with increased risk of mental illness and suicide, is severe; In America alone, up to 23 million people are affected by the disease, the US Government Accountability Office estimated in March.

Long COVID has also put about 4.5 million people out of work, about 2.4% of the US workforce, Brookings Institution employment expert Katie Bach told Congress in July.

According to the IHME, an estimated nearly 150 million people worldwide developed long COVID in the first two years of the pandemic.

In many developing countries, a lack of surveillance of long-COVID makes the picture even grimmer, said Murad Khan, a professor of psychiatry at Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, who is part of an international group of experts researching the risk of suicide associated with COVID-19.

“We have a huge problem, but we don’t know the scale of the problem,” he said.


Time is a scarce commodity for a growing number of COVID sufferers, who say they are running out of hope and money, according to Reuters interviews with several dozen patients, family members and disease experts.

For Taylor, who lost his job selling genomic tests to doctors in a round of layoffs in the summer of 2020, the turning point came when his insurance coverage with his previous employer expired and his application for benefits was denied, the family said.

“It was the drop that broke the camel’s back,” said his older brother Mark Taylor.

Heidi Ferrer, a 50-year-old TV screenwriter originally from Kansas, killed herself in May 2021 to escape from the tremors and excruciating pain she is unable to walk after contracting COVID more than a year ago or let her sleep, her husband Nick Guthe said.

Guthe, a filmmaker who has become an advocate for long COVID sufferers since his wife’s death, said he had not heard of other suicides within the network of long COVID sufferers until last winter.

“They come weekly now,” he added.

Survivor Corps, an advocacy group for long COVID patients, said it surveyed its membership in May and found that 44% of nearly 200 respondents said they had thought about suicide.

Lauren Nichols, board member of Long-COVID support group Body Politic, said she was aware of more than 50 people with Long-COVID who had killed themselves through contact with family members on social media, although Reuters could not independently confirm the cases.

Nichols, 34, a logistics expert for the U.S. Department of Transportation in Boston, says she herself has contemplated suicide several times because of the long COVID she’s been suffering from for more than two years.

Exit International advises English speakers on how to seek help dying in Switzerland, where euthanasia is legal with certain exams. Fiona Stewart, a director, said the organization, which does not track results after the consultation, has received several dozen inquiries from long COVID patients during the pandemic and is now getting about one a week.


The US National Institutes of Health is tracking the mental health impact as part of its $470 million RECOVER study on Long COVID. First results on anxiety and depression rates are expected in early September, but information on suicide will take longer, said Dr. Stuart Katz, a senior researcher.

“What we do know is that people with chronic illnesses are prone to suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and completed suicides,” said Richard Gallagher, associate professor of child psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, who is part of RECOVER.

When asked if the virus changes the brain, Gallagher said there is some evidence that COVID can cause brain inflammation, which has been linked to suicide and depression, even in people with relatively mild illness.

“There can be some direct toxic effects from the virus, and part of that will be inflammation,” he said.

Long-term COVID reduces overall health by an average of 21% — similar to total deafness or a traumatic brain injury, the University of Washington’s IHME found.

Although some experts expected Omicron to be less likely to cause long-term COVID, official UK data released this month showed that 34% of the 2 million long-term COVID-19 people in the country developed their symptoms after Omicron infection.

A UK government advisory group is studying the risk of suicide for long COVID patients compared to the wider population, while the State Office for National Statistics (ONS) is investigating whether it can predict a long COVID patient’s risk of suicide, as it can in people with Other is the case of diseases such as cancer.

“Health conditions that are long-term disabling can increase the risk of suicide, hence the concern about long-COVID,” said Louis Appleby, professor of psychiatry at the University of Manchester and UK government adviser.

In fact, research in the UK and Spain found a six-fold increased risk of suicide in patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), another post-viral disease with symptoms similar to long-COVID, compared to the general population.

Britain’s network of long-distance COVID treatment centers is also drastically overbooked, adding to a sense of hopelessness for some; in June, the most recent month on record, only a third of patients were able to get an appointment within six weeks of being referred by their GP and another third had to wait more than 15 weeks.

Ruth Oshikanlu, a former midwife and health visitor in London turned pregnancy coach, said their long COVID health struggles had marginalized them together. When her business temporarily collapsed due to debt problems after struggling with work, she felt her life was over.

“I cried with the accountant and the guy put me on hold – I guess he didn’t want to be the last to talk to me,” recalls the 48-year-old.

“What COVID gives you is a lot of time to think,” she said. “Thank god I didn’t think about finishing it because of my son. But I know so many people who have had these suicidal thoughts.”