CLEVELAND — Psychosis. It’s a word describing conditions that affect the mind so much so that people lose touch with reality. Now it’s something mental health experts are examining as a symptom of some COVID cases.
“I have a whole new appreciation for mental illness,” said Ivan Agerton, 50, from the Seattle area. He’s a photographer and film maker. He was on a two-month, overseas expedition, but by the time he got home, he tested positive for COVID.
“I lost my sense of smell,” said Agerton. The physical symptoms were not that big of a deal.
THE MENTAL EFFECTS
However, at one point he said he got a spam phone call that rang then suddenly stopped. From there, the mental effects of COVID flipped on like a light switch. “I became extremely paranoid and I had these thoughts that people were tracking me and watching me,” Agerton told us.
He didn’t tell his wife about this for two days, but then, he just couldn’t take it anymore.
“I pulled her into our closet in our bedroom and had her leave her cell phone outside of the closet because I also thought my cell phone…they were listening to us," he said.
He spent a total of 17 days in a mental hospital. “(We) found some information where this was something that was happening in Europe,” said Agerton.
There has been a growing number of patients like Agerton diagnosed with COVID and psychosis all over the world. There are studies going on in the United Kingdom. Patients have similar symptoms to Agerton and there are risks of self-harm. Here in the U.S., the CDC sent out a warning.
“I had no control over this,” said Agerton. He is certainly brave to come forward with his story. He wants you to be aware this can happen. In fact, we tracked down cases of COVID psychosis in our own backyard.
CASES IN CLEVELAND
“She said she completely lost track of time for those 2 or 3 weeks,” said Poorvanshi Alag, who is a resident doctor at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. She was describing a woman in her 60s that recently came into the hospital.
“We saw the patient kind of grumbling, her speech was disorganized, she kept repeating certain words over and over again,” said Alag.
The woman had COVID-19. She wasn’t sleeping. She was texting people strange things.
“She was seeing old, dead family members and she was reporting to her family that she was pregnant and that she would have to deliver,” said Alag.
“It’s particularly scary, not just for the person, but for the family,” said Dr. Raman Marwaha who is the Residency Training Director of Psychiatry Metro.
“(The husband) said, ‘This is not my wife anymore. I’ve never experienced anything like this,’” said Alag. “He just didn’t know, and he just couldn’t stop crying.”
And, it’s not just happening at Metro.
“They believe that the people in the hospital are trying to hurt them or kill them,” said Dr. Susand Padrino from University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. She’s seen it, too. She told us all of this is happening without any prior history or family problems with mental health.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
So, why is this happening? One reason experts said is that COVID binds to a protein in the lungs.
“This specific protein is produced by the brain. So, maybe that’s how it gets into your brain,” said Alag.
Autopsies done on former COVID patients show wherever the virus is found in the brain, there was decreased blood flow in that region.
“You could have a stroke which leads to depression, it could lead to mania, mood disorders, psychosis. It could go any way,” said Alag.
There is some good news. It appears most psychosis subsides when COVID is no longer an issue for a patient. Plus, there are lots of studies are underway.
“Maybe now we have the science to really understand what is causing that in the brain to make people have these experiences,” said Padrino.
Some researchers say mental history and psycho-social stressors can make other patients at higher risk for COVID psychosis.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF THIS HAPPENS TO A LOVED ONE?
So, what should you do if you see such abnormal behavior in a loved one?
Padrino said to reassure the person that they are safe. Tell them there are people ready to help them be safe. And take away any guns and ammo. Put them in a safe place away from the patient.
For patients like Agerton, who said he’s now 100% recovered, he just wants you to be aware that severe mental effects are real. “This isn’t something you can tough out,” said Agerton. “It’s something where you need medical assistance. You need help.”