After two years overwhelmed by the pandemic, frantically searching for information to save patients, the science is becoming more transparent. Doctors are beginning to understand how coronavirus can negatively impact the brain.
Those answers some families have been craving since they were suddenly struck by the little-known Covid threat.
Jennifer and Ben Price had big plans on a peaceful stretch of property 70 miles southwest of Chicago.
“It was just our happy place out at the farm. It was a lot of work, but we had so much fun doing it together,” Jennifer Price said. “We had our cows out there. That was our dream. That was where we were going to move and build our home.”
Before they purchased the farm, they built a family.
“He loved his children more than anything in this world,” Price said.
The dad, with big blue eyes and an even bigger smile, got sick with Covid in February 2021. The 48-year-old was eventually hospitalized and given supplemental oxygen and steroids.
“It was a very trying time for him,” Jennifer Price said. “He loved being around people and he was completely isolated.”
After several days of inpatient care, Ben came home.
“He was very weak, and he was still very sick, but within a few days was when we started noticing a change in his behavior,” Price said. “His tone of voice was different, the look in his eyes was fear, and they were very wide like he was scared, and he kept saying ‘I’m just so scared.’”
Mac Davis and his wife tested positive for Covid in January 2021.
“It was for us like a cold, very mild symptoms,” Mac Davis said. “About two weeks after we got it, I started to feel great anxiety. It led into depression, which I had never had.”
The normally outgoing and affable Texas salesman says he didn’t want to see anybody.
“I was paranoid, did a lot of pacing around the house for no reason,” Mac Davis said.
Jennifer Price says her husband did the same thing.
“He was pacing the house,” she said. “He was going from window to window, and he wasn’t telling us anything. The only thing he said at one point was, ‘I have so much farming to do, I have so much farming to do,’ and this was February, so there was no farming to be done.”
In Houston, Mac’s wife and son were so concerned about the 47-year-old’s behavior they hid the family’s firearms.
“She hid every gun but the gun she had in her own car. She just didn’t think I was suicidal, and I hid that from her, but every day I would go in the garage, I’d grab that gun and, thank God, I didn’t do it,” Mac Davis said.
Five days after Ben was released from the hospital, he drove out to the family farm.
“He wasn’t himself yet, but he seemed better,” his wife said. “I just want to go out and do some paperwork because I feel like then I’m getting something done and that helps me. Not long later, his dad was driving around, looking at the farms and checking on the animals, and went out there and just couldn’t find him. He saw his truck.”
They tried to reach Ben on his phone but no answer.
“His dad called me back, and he had found him, and he was gone,” Jennifer Price said. “There’s just no way to prepare yourself for something like that. It was just never on our radar, even with how off he’d been. That was not even a question in our minds.”
Just hours after Ben’s suicide, a friend mentioned Covid psychosis and sent Jennifer articles about the condition.
“Immediately upon reading them, I knew exactly that’s what he had experienced,” Price said.
The mother of Maya and Jett says her husband of 23 years had never suffered from mental illness, depression, or anxiety before getting infected. And the couple had always faced life’s challenges together, she says they were ‘unbreakable.’
“Our son was born extremely premature he was only a pound and a half when he was born. He’s almost 19 years old, so we’ve been through extreme stress. We had been through tough times,” Price said.
“The kinds of things we’re seeing really reflect profound changes in how brain circuitry is working,” said Dr. Robert Shulman, a psychiatrist with Rush University Medical Center.
It’s not that the virus itself travels to the brain, rather, it can trigger an aggressive immune response – what’s called a ‘cytokine storm’ – that results in widespread inflammation, the body’s way to combat the virus.
It’s the same inflammatory process responsible for the severe lung damage seen in many patients during the pandemic. But the cytokine storm can also affect the brain by disrupting normal neuronal signaling or brain circuits.
“If mood circuits are affected, you can develop depressive disorders or anxiety circuits, you may see panic and anxiety,” Shulman said. “If it hits sleep center, and we’ve even seen severe depressions with psychotic features.”
Viral diseases are known triggers for psychiatric disorders. Symptoms have been noted in other infectious disease outbreaks, including influenza, herpes, HIV-AIDS, Ebola, MERS and SARS-COV (2002-2004).
“What is really concerning is when we see the patient who does not have any prior history, no history of illness in the family, who presents with a marked change in behavior that is traceable, directly timewise, to having the infection starting within weeks,” Shulman said.
“I’m not a dark person. I’m very joyful most of the time and I try to see the glass half full, but this was a total 180,” Mac Davis said.
Medication, therapy and the support of a dear friend helped save Mac’s life.
“At one point in my life, I was prideful, well, we can get through this and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but this is not something you want to play around with,” Davis said.
“It wasn’t my husband stressed or upset because he had been in the hospital with COVID, this was something that had taken him over, and it was no longer my husband,” Price said. “Had I known about this, I would never have let him out of my sight, ever that day.”
Jennifer says she’s heard from families across the country who need help or have experienced a similar loss due to Covid psychosis. She’s spent the last year lobbying in her husband’s honor, and now there’s new legislation that – if passed – will help fund research on neurological and psychiatric illnesses associated with Covid-19 infection.
If you or someone you know is thinking of harming themselves, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free support at 1-800-273-8255.