The episodes of severe mental illness are rare, but cases are being reported around the world.
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“I thought I had been kidnapped,” says San Francisco resident Ron Temko, who experienced a psychotic episode after he contracted COVID in the spring. “I couldn’t speak so I made a little sign for my son to go get an AK, his gun.”
Temko’s delirium began after he came out of a medically induced coma, while being treated for COVID at UCSF.
“I wanted to climb out that bed and jump out the window,” he says. “Just crazy, crazy things.”
ABC7 was there, when after 61 days, Temko was released from the hospital to much celebration.
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Now seven months later, he’s experiencing a painful relapse in his health condition.
“Now I consider myself a long hauler,” says Temko. “I’ve been very emotional, crying, upset, thinking when is this going to end?”
Temko believes his delusions were caused by a combination of sedatives he was given in the hospital and the actual COVID-19 disease.
But there are other COVID-19 patients with much milder cases requiring no medication, who have also experienced severe delusions and psychotic episodes.
“The kinds of things that I have seen in patients who have a sudden onset of a change in their behavior,” says UCSF neuropsychiatrist Dr. Vivek Datta. “They are much more suspicious of their family members. They’re worrying or believe that people are trying to harm them or kill them. They believe that the nurses are talking about them or poisoning their food.”
Dr. Datta has treated several patients with no history of mental illness for psychotic symptoms a few weeks or months after a COVID infection.
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“These kinds of symptoms can be as or more disabling than the physical symptoms that we associate with COVID,” the doctor says.
Although doctors across the U.S. and around the world are reporting similar cases, Dr. Datta says it’s quite rare.
When asked why a virus would cause these psychiatric symptoms, Dr. Datta explained that there are a few theories.
“One (theory) is that the virus itself may be directly attacking the brain, and leading to the development of the symptoms,” the neuropsychiatrist says. “The second, which is probably more compelling, is that the body’s own immune systems response to having this virus leads to the symptoms developing. Because of how that can affect the brain that when you have an infection, we produce an inflammatory response. And some of those chemicals might be toxic to the brain, if the body’s immune response goes into overdrive.”
At this point, Dr. Datta says it’s too early to know if these psychotic episodes are a short term reaction to COVID or if they may become long term health concerns.
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