A new study from researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health draws a direct line between psychological distress and long COVID.

The study found that factors like depression and anxiety measured early in the pandemic before study participants contracted COVID-19 were associated with up to 45% increased risk of long COVID, which is defined as experiencing COVID symptoms for longer than four weeks after infection.

For reseachers, the findings are indicative of the importance of mental health.

Andrea Roberts, senior research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard Chan School, told GBH News that mental health is sometimes under appreciated as a critical component of overall health.

"The fact is, our brain is in our body, and it's the master controller — it controls a lot of immune function and hormone signaling throughout the body, which we've realized over the past decades have a huge effect on our physical health," she said.

The study began in 2020 and enrolled over 54,000 people. More than 3,000 of the participants contracted COVID. The increased risk of long COVID researchers found was independent of other commonly associated risk factors with COVID, like smoking.

“We were surprised by how strongly psychological distress before a COVID-19 infection was associated with an increased risk of long COVID,” said Siwen Wang, a researcher in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard Chan School who led the study, in a statement. “Distress was more strongly associated with developing long COVID than physical health risk factors such as obesity, asthma, and hypertension.”

Roberts hopes the findings impact how we look at mental health.

"Yeah, well it would be great if it could sort of contribute to an understanding that we need to take mental health more seriously and we need to make sure people have access to treatments that have been proven to work," she said.