Life after COVID: Brain fog, memory loss and paranoid delusions

  • Kazi Nafia Rahman, Staff Correspondent, bdnews24.com
    Published: 2021-05-01 01:58:00 BdST

For Monoj Dey, life is like a long walk through a dark abyss.

“It felt like I was headed into the dark,” said Monoj, a Dhaka-based book editor. “It’s hard to describe, but it was terrifying. Like falling into a pit, or sinking into a well -- that’s the kind of thing I was afraid of.”

On the eighth day of fighting his COVID-19 infection, Monoj was gripped by the dread that he was drowning in a dark abyss. Since then, he has had to struggle with mental health as well as recovering from the virus.

Monoj, an editor at Adarsha Publications, contracted the coronavirus in March. It took him 18 days to recover. But though he is now free from the fever, a sore throat and physical weakness, he still suffers from anxiety and restlessness.

Many like Monoj find themselves struggling with psychiatric disorders they never experienced before they got COVID.

Mental health issues are haunting their personal lives, at work and at home. Being unable to rid themselves of these anxieties is only causing further pain.

Mohaiminul Ahmed, who was diagnosed with the coronavirus in September last year, is having mental health issues as well. The problems only grew more intense after he was infected again in March. He has been following advice from doctors to try and regain his mental stability, but it is not working well for him.

He is looking for better treatment.

Professor Dr Mahjabeen Haque, chairperson of Dhaka University's education and counselling psychology department, believes that the frustration and depression experienced by patients is due to the ‘big shock’ from the coronavirus.

“I have seen quite a few people who recovered from COVID,” she said. “They still have a fear of death and anxiety related to it. That is why they are depressed. They feel down and are afraid.”

It is also tied to physical weakness, she said.

“They think they haven’t actually gotten better. They think - will I always feel like this from now on? When people are physically unhealthy, they also feel mentally unwell. Many have panic attacks. Many feel like they can’t breathe and they need oxygen. They think they’re dying.”

Some patients have even experienced hallucinations, Dr Haque said.

“Severe depression can cause hallucinations. In many cases, we’ve seen people getting depression after COVID. Those who had some symptoms of it before are experiencing it anew. Those who didn’t are also experiencing some depression.”

Professor Abdus Salam, a former teacher of psychiatry at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University or BSMMU, says that the sense of despair could be the result of any widespread viral infection, not just the coronavirus.

“But this is a particularly virulent virus and it leads to a serious viral infection. People are dying, they are suffering - this can result in serious mental distress. In particular, it will result in an uptick in depression and anxiety.”

“There hasn’t been any research on this in our country, but I believe nearly 50 percent of those who get the coronavirus are likely to develop depression.”

He says he is getting some patients who describe similar mental health issues.

“We don’t know enough about this virus,” he said. “We don’t know whether it can have an effect on the brain, or lead to memory loss.”

But more common viruses like influenza can lead to meningitis, which can, he added.

Prof Bidhan Ranjan Roy Podder, director of the National Institute of Mental Health and Hospital, has also been treating patients with similar issues.

“The stress of the coronavirus is causing more mental health problems,” he said. “We are getting more of these kinds of patients. We see symptoms of anxiety and depression, but we haven’t seen too many cases of insomnia.”

WHAT TO DO?

Prof Podder suggests relying on the support of a variety of social and mental strategies to relieve stress.

Dhaka-based journalist Rafiqul Bashar, who has been having some memory loss issues since recovering from COVID, described his process for overcoming the problem.

“I would set myself a task and then find myself drifting off to do something else,” he said. “I couldn’t remember what I had initially planned to do. Some important work ended up unfinished. Later on, I’d think, why didn’t I do this vital work before?”

“So now I write everything down so I don’t get distracted. I didn’t have to do this before.”

Monoj came up with a three-week regimen to help him overcome his fear:

“I tried to watch some YouTube videos and read many articles to come up with solutions. I am doing some meditation on my own, some yoga and breathing exercises. This helped give me some mental stability. I’m not afraid any more, but I still have trouble sleeping.”

Experts advise the survivors to take some time for self-care and seek medical advice if the mental health situation deteriorates.

Dr Mahjabeen Haque says you should remain positive and take it step by step.

“Don’t think you’ll be cured all at once,” she said. “You have to leave behind that idea and take it one day at a time.”

She suggested doing things that bring you joy, to listen to music you like, or reminisce about positive memories.

She also said it was important to eat properly, exercise, and get the appropriate amount of sleep and rest. People could also take up meditation or breathing exercises.

Dr Haque urged people to take equal care of their minds and bodies.

“And if you find the fear and anxiety overwhelming and you feel as if you’re losing control, then you should seek the advice of a doctor.”

Professor Kanuj Kumar Barman of BSMMU’s neurology department said he saw a stroke patient some days ago who later found out that he had recovered from COVID-19.

Besides doing exercise and taking nutritious food, he advised taking rest and keeping diabetes and blood pressure under control for the patients who have recovered from this respiratory disease.