The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has included some mood disorders on its list of underlying conditions that can increase a person’s risk of becoming severely ill if they are infected with COVID-19.
Depression and schizophrenia spectrum disorders are now among the health conditions that appear on the CDC’s list of factors that qualify someone for a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The change, which the agency told HuffPost it made Thursday, means that anyone 18 or over with one of those conditions is now eligible for a third shot six months after getting their second one.
Why mental health is a risk factor for severe COVID
For months, experts have implored the CDC to include certain mental health disorders on its list of underlying conditions. In a September letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, which was shared with HuffPost, some of the nation’s top mental health organizations called the exclusion “simply unacceptable.”
“Officially designating mental illnesses that have been confirmed by research to carry a unique mortality risk during the pandemic for prioritization by the CDC is the only scientifically and morally defensible action to take,” said the group, which included Mental Health America and the American Psychiatric Association.
The letter cited striking research that shows how closely linked certain mental health disorders and severe COVID outcomes can be.
One study found that schizophrenia was the second-highest risk factor for COVID-related death, for reasons researchers do not yet understand. (The largest risk factor was older age.) It’s possible there is something about the biology of schizophrenia that makes people more susceptible to COVID-19 — perhaps some kind of immune system disturbance, researchers studying the connection have said. Researchers are also exploring whether medicines used to treat the condition may play a role.
Other studies have found that people with mood disorders such as depression have a similar risk of hospitalization and death from COVID when compared to those with underlying health issues such as diabetes and cancer — though, again, why that is remains unclear. People with depression might have some kind of impaired immune response, but they’re also at higher risk of other physical health issues. Social determinants of health, like poverty, might also play a role.
An important change that has been a long time coming
Mental health groups say the CDC’s decision to include certain mood disorders and schizophrenia to its list of underlying conditions is both welcome and overdue.
“Officially designating mental illnesses that have been confirmed by research to carry a unique mortality risk during the pandemic for prioritization by the CDC is a scientific and moral imperative. This action has the potential to save many lives,” Lisa Dailey, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, said in a statement to HuffPost.
“Mental health is health, and we applaud the CDC for recognizing that, and following the research, in this list of underlying conditions.”
Schools, employers, and state and local governments look to the CDC for guidance on how people in high-risk groups can best protect themselves — so including this new group of people on the list has important practical implications. It also ensures that people with certain mood disorders and schizophrenia can access booster shots if they decide to as their immunity wanes over time. (Boosters are currently only eligible for qualifying recipients of the Pfizer vaccine, but the Food and Drug Administration voted in favor of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters this week. The CDC is expected to make its recommendations shortly.)
“Now that some mental health conditions have been added to the CDC’s list of underlying conditions, we recommend those living with these conditions speak with their health providers about whether a booster shot is appropriate,” Schroeder Stribling, president and CEO of Mental Health America, said in a statement to HuffPost.
And though this does not appear to be the CDC’s primary purpose in updating its list, the change serves another important purpose as well: It clearly sends the message that ― despite the stigma that continues to surround it ― mental health and physical health are not separate.
“Mental health is health, and we applaud the CDC for recognizing that, and following the research, in this list of underlying conditions,” Stribling said.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.