People with schizophrenia are almost three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those without the psychiatric illness in America, a study has found.
The higher risk cannot be explained by factors that often accompany serious mental health disorders ― such as higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and smoking ― according to researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.
This particular investigation found schizophrenia is the “biggest risk factor for death from COVID-19 after age.” Being male, heart disease and race ranked next after schizophrenia in order.
In light of the new findings, mental health charities across the globe are urging the government to do more to protect people with schizophrenia.
For the study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, the research team analyzed 7,348 patient records of men and women treated for Covid-19 at the height of the pandemic in NYU Langone hospitals in New York City and Long Island between March 3 and May 31, 2020.
Of these cases, they identified 14% who were diagnosed with schizophrenia, mood disorders or anxiety. The researchers then calculated patient death rates within 45 days of testing positive for the virus.
Being 75 or older increased the odds of dying by 35.7 times, the researchers found. Those aged 65-74 were 16.6 times more likely to be killed by COVID-19, while those aged 55-64 were almost eight times more likely to die, and those aged 45-54 were 3.9 times more likely to die.
Schizophrenia was the second biggest risk factor after age – the odds of dying were increased 2.7 times – and this was after adjustment for age, sex, race and other medical issues.
Initially, researchers believed issues such as heart disease, depression and barriers in care were behind the low life expectancy seen in schizophrenia patients. However, the results suggest the biology of schizophrenia itself could be making people more vulnerable to COVID-19. One explanation is an immune system disturbance, possibly tied to the genetics of the disorder, said study lead author Katlyn Nemani, a research assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.
The researchers noted that this large sample of patients who all were infected with the same virus provided a “unique opportunity” to study the underlying effects of schizophrenia on the body. They plan to explore whether medications used to treat schizophrenia may play a role as well.
However, study senior author Donald Goff cautioned that they could only determine the risk for patients with schizophrenia who had access to testing and medical care. Further research is needed, he said, to clarify how dangerous the virus may be for those who lack these resources.
Lucy Schonegevel, deputy campaigns and policy associate director at Rethink Mental Illness, called the findings “very concerning” and said the study needs to be fully evaluated. “We need to develop a better understanding of why people diagnosed with a severe mental illness like schizophrenia are potentially at greater risk of dying from COVID-19,” she told HuffPost UK.
“It reinforces the importance of people living with severe mental illness being included as a priority group to receive the vaccine,” she added. “To support this, we’re undertaking research to understand any potential barriers to vaccination so that they can be urgently addressed.”
While many people severely affected by mental illness will live long and happy lives with the right care and support, there are concerns that COVID-19 stands to exacerbate pre-existing health inequalities.
“Prior to the pandemic, we knew that people living with severe mental illness are more likely to experience poor physical health and are 4.5 times more likely to die before the age of 75 than the general population,” Schonegevel said.
“Physical health checks are routine health appointments for people severely affected by mental illness which can save lives and efforts to increase the number of people receiving these checks need to be redoubled. It’s essential to look beyond a diagnosis of mental illness and treat and care for people’s physical health to give them the best possible quality of life.”
Stephen Buckley, head of information at the UK mental health charity Mind, added: “Never has it been more important for people with mental health problems to get the support they need and deserve.”
Anyone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia who is worried about what impact coronavirus might have on their health should talk to their doctor to review their situation.
This article originally appeared in HuffPost UK and has been lightly edited.