Accountable Healthcare - Patients With Mental Illnesses Should Be Prioritized For Covid-19 Vaccines, Experts Say
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February 18, 2021

Patients With Mental Illnesses Should Be Prioritized For Covid-19 Vaccines, Experts Say


Most European countries are failing to prioritize patients with severe mental illnesses in their Covid-19 vaccination drives despite evidence showing that these patients are among the most vulnerable to the disease, often more so than those with physical ailments, a group of experts and mental health organizations warned Wednesday.   

Sad man during autumn weather
A group of experts call for those with severe mental illness to be prioritized in Covid-19 ... [+] GETTY


In a survey of 20 European countries, only the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark recognized severe mental illnesses as high-risk conditions for Covid-19 and planned for people living with them to be vaccinated alongside other high-risk groups, the researchers said in The Lancet medical journal.  

This is despite growing scientific evidence showing the risks posed by severe mental illnesses—such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder—to “equal or even surpass” the risks posed by other conditions included for prioritization, the researchers said.

“Recent work shows that if you have a psychiatric disorder your risk of Covid infection rises by 65%, and severely mentally ill patients are between 1.5 and 2 times more likely to die,” said Livia De Picker, a professor at the University Psychiatric Hospital Campus Duffel in Belgium who co-led the research.

“These patients are completely disregarded in most vaccination plans, and this needs to change,” she added.

The researchers, alongside prominent European mental health organizations, called on national health and science bodies to make sure those with mental illnesses are prioritized in vaccination campaigns, additionally calling on the European Union to set bloc-wide standards on the matter.

European College of Neuropsychopharmacology President Professor Gitte Moos Knudsen said “European-level strategies” are needed to contain the viruses spread, adding that “if you want to "follow the science", then these at-risk patients should be prioritized.”


Hilkka Kärkkäinen, president of the Global Alliance of Mental Illness Advocacy Networks-Europe (GAMIAN-Europe), said: [It is] “dispiriting to see that even during the pandemic, mental health is an afterthought—if that—for many countries. The scientific evidence is clear that Covid and the resulting lockdown is causing significant harm to people with serious mental health problems, but very few countries are addressing this. This needs to change".


The evidence linking severe psychiatric illness to Covid-19 is mounting and, as the experts note, any evidence-based vaccination policy ought to be accounting for it. With growing pressure from clinicians and patient groups alongside mounting scientific evidence, countries could change their strategies to account for this group in the future. This is what happened in Europe. In their paper, the researchers note that only the U.K. initially included the mentally ill in their vaccination strategy, with Germany and Denmark changing their approach based on new evidence, while the Netherlands changed their approach in response to advocacy from mental health organizations.     


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not currently list mental illnesses as a risk factor for severe illness from Covid-19 infection and this group is not on the priority list for vaccination. It is unclear whether the CDC is planning to change this guidance to reflect growing scientific evidence and Forbes has approached it for comment.


In November, a peer-reviewed  study confirmed reported links between psychiatric illness and Covid-19, with nearly one in five Covid-19 patients developing a mental illness within three months of testing positive for the virus and those with pre-existing mental conditions being 65% more likely to be diagnosed with Covid-19, even accounting for other risk factors. Schizophrenia in particular has been identified as second only to age as a risk factor for the disease, with patients three times more likely to die from Covid-19 than those without the illness. Beyond the illness itself, public health measures to control the pandemic have exacted a heavy toll, with devastating reports of anxiety and depression induced by extended periods of lockdown and social isolation.

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