issue Spring 2021

COVID and Traumatic Stress: CHP Student Explores 'How the Brain Functions in the Context of Illness'

By Margaret Smith
Erin Kaseda, CHP ’24
Photo by Michael R. Schmidt

As she explored the depths of brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, Erin Kaseda, CHP ’24, said she was intrigued to discover not only that PTSD exists for survivors of COVID-19 but to learn how acute it can be — including the occurrence of delirium reported by advanced-stage patients.

“Many people have these hallucinatory experiences where they see things like themselves being wheeled down to the morgue, or they see their family members dead all around them. And those are the only memories that they have of being in the hospital and being in the ICU,” said Ms. Kaseda, a student in the clinical psychology PhD program on a neuropsychology specialty track.

“COVID has turned a spotlight on how there’s this relationship, always, between medical illness and mental health.”

“All of my research interests are in how the brain functions in the context of illness,” Ms. Kaseda said. This interest is what led to her most recent publication, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Differential Diagnostic Consideration for COVID-19 Survivors,” which delves into cognition in relation to COVID-19.

However, her research didn’t begin and end with COVID. The project was sparked by her work with veterans and active-duty military, a population at increased risk for traumatic brain injury and PTSD. In the early months of the pandemic, the link between COVID survivors’ and veterans’ traumatic experiences and subsequent cognitive concerns became clear. Ms. Kaseda said that in addition to stressors imposed on COVID patients — such as isolation, lonely hospital stays and the real threat of death — “a lot of the traumatic kind of treatment experiences that people have in ICU settings, like intubation, that are very invasive and medically traumatic” made her realize that “PTSD is going to be something that comes up.”

The intrusive experiences detailed by patients following a stay in the ICU, she added, are “not something that providers can control and ends up becoming a prominent feature in life.” Identifying those who are at the greatest risk of developing PTSD and ensuring they are met with care then becomes an ongoing mission even after they have been discharged.

“It’s a new topic, and not a lot of people know about it,” said Dr. Andrew Levine, an adjunct professor with the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA specializing in HIV and its effects on the brain, and Ms. Kaseda’s co-author on the article. “It’s really interesting to think about these things as they arise and apply knowledge from other similar pandemics — such as HIV, for example — to this novel coronavirus.”

Looking at the future of COVID-19 and its lasting effects, Ms. Kaseda is hopeful that the increased attention placed on mental health during the pandemic and the new ways of accessing care — such as telehealth services — will help advance care for more people.

“COVID has turned a spotlight on how there’s this relationship, always, between medical illness and mental health,” she said. “That’s true, not just for COVID survivors themselves, but also for their family members and for healthcare workers.”