From the Journals

Mental health after ICU: It’s complicated



It is well known that survivors of critical care are at heightened risk of mental health disorders even months afterward they are discharged, but it’s less clear what factors might contribute to those outcomes. A new attempt to identify risk factors for post-ICU depression, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder, as well as worse quality of life, paints a complex picture.

Age, mental preexisting mental health concerns, acute emotional stress at the time of critical care, and post-care physical impairment all may play a role, according to the multicenter, prospective cohort study conducted in Brazil, which was published in CHEST .

Previous systematic reviews have shown raised frequencies mental health disorders following ICU discharge, including anxiety (32%-40%), depression (29%-34%), and PTSD (16%-23%). Few studies have looked at the potential impact of preexisting conditions or post-ICU disability on these outcomes, yet that information is critical to key to designing effective prevention and rehabilitation interventions.

The results suggest that preexisting mental health and factors associated with the critical illness, which have gained attention as potential factors, aren’t sufficient to explain these outcomes. “Our data suggest that the network of potential risk factors for mental illness among patients who have been discharged from the ICU is much more complex and may involve risk factors from multiple domains. ... Long-term mental health disorders after critical illness may be the result of the interaction among stressors before ICU stay, during ICU stay, and after ICU stay, calling attention to the need for interdisciplinary and multifaceted strategies aimed at preventing and screening for mental health disorders after ICU discharge,” Cassiano Teixeira, MD, PhD, of the Postgraduation of Pulmonology–Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, and colleagues wrote.

The researchers also noted that some risk factors could be screened and may be modifiable, including anxiety and depression symptoms at ICU discharge, as well as reduced physical function status.

Complications or risk factors?

The findings are significant, though they may represent complications of emotional distress following ICU stays, rather than risk factors that predict it, according to an accompanying editorial. The author, O. Joseph Bienvenu III, MD, PhD, who is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore. He called for prospective studies to determine the predictive value of these factors. “If we are to improve long-term mental health after critical illnesses, this predictive information will be vital to selective prevention efforts.”

Dr. O. Joseph Bienvenu

Dr. O. Joseph Bienvenu III

Potential interventions could include psychological treatment in the ICU, ICU follow-up clinics, support groups, and cognitive-behavioral therapy, among others. Whichever approach is used, it should be targeted, according to Dr. Bienvenu, since patients who have greater emotional distress seem to gain the most benefit from such interventions.

The researchers examined outcomes among 579 adults who had spent at least 72 hours in the ICU. The median age was 61 years, and 47% were women.

Six months after release from the ICU, telephone assessments by trained researchers revealed that 48% had impairment in physical function, compared with the time preceding ICU admission. 36.2% of participants had a mental health disorder: 24.2% reported anxiety, 20.9% had depression, and 15.4% had PTSD.

Increasing numbers of psychiatric syndromes, from 0 to 3, was associated with worse scores on the mental dimension on the health-related quality of life (HRQoL) score, but there was no relationship with scores on the physical dimension.


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