Families and mental health professionals call for COVID-19 research

STRONGSVILLE – When her 17-year-old son Brycen Gray’s symptoms quickly worsened, his mother, Tara Gray, was unaware he had COVID-19.

Come to think of it, the Strongsville resident believes he contracted the virus between April 16 and April 18, while he was with his high school friends – almost a week before he killed himself.

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Gray said her son, who had never been diagnosed with a mental illness, died after the infectious virus caused him to develop a psychiatric illness.

“Looking back is 2020,” Gray said. “If I had known he had COVID-19 and that this was going to be our fate and we had had more information, I would never have left him at home alone.”

Almost seven months after his death, Gray’s family are requesting federal research funds to study COVID-19 and its mental health and neurological effects on the human body.

“Brycen wasn’t depressed. There was no sign. I know kids can hide it,” Gray said. “It rocked everyone.”

‘It’s a nightmare’

Brycen Gray (right) poses with his niece.

When her son first fell ill on Monday April 19, she was not surprised.

Earlier today, he had received his second BioNTech Pfizer vaccine and she expected him to feel sick as after his first injection.

But every day his condition deteriorated.

On Wednesday, he couldn’t taste or smell, quickly developed a fever and had severe diarrhea – common symptoms of the coronavirus. While he could sleep, he neither ate nor drank, she said.

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Gray remembers how anxious he got around the same time.

“I asked what worried him, but he didn’t know,” she said.

Then he sent a strange text to a friend.

“He said to one of the boys, ‘I feel like I’m going crazy,’” Gray said.

On Friday April 23, her son committed suicide.

“I am a nurse, so I have experienced the deaths of other families and I have known people who have lost children for various reasons,” Gray said. “You can only imagine, this is every person’s worst nightmare, and now living it is a nightmare.”

Medical experts posthumously diagnosed her son with COVID-19 after investigating his illness, Gray said.

“If he wasn’t feeling well the weekend before his second shot, he wouldn’t have said anything because he was socializing with his friends,” she said. “I think he caught the virus this weekend.”

A hard pill to swallow

The days after her son’s death were unclear.

Gray remembers next to nothing about the funeral, which lasted two hours longer than expected because so many people showed up.

“Lots of kids from all over came, but I remember a few parents in line telling me how he had helped them or helped their child with a mental health issue or by feeling welcomed and comforted,” said said Gray. “It makes the pill even harder to swallow.”

His son attended St. Edward High School where he played football and recently took an interest in lacrosse.

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She described him as a valued person who brought people together. He’s always been social, so during the pandemic, her friends moved homes to keep their families safe, she said.

When he died, his friends were distraught.

“They didn’t know what to do,” Gray said. “They kept asking what they missed.”

“Research is urgent”

Within a week of their son’s death, Gray’s husband emailed U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Rocky River, who quickly spoke to the family.

Gonzalez knew there could be a link between suicidal ideation and COVID-19.

Months earlier in February, Ben Price committed suicide after his battle with the virus.

Her symptoms, which included anxiety, panic and hopelessness, aligned with post-COVID psychosis, medical experts said in a May USA Today report.

Gonzalez introduced a bill entitled “The Brycen Gray and Ben Price COVID-19 Neurological Impact Act” at the end of October. It would provide grants to support research into the psychiatric and neurological impacts of the virus.

“Research is urgently needed to better understand why neurological and psychiatric diseases occur in patients following COVID-19 infection so that treatments and therapeutic strategies can be developed,” the bill says.

Since her son’s death, Gray has heard from families in the United States whose loved ones have suffered from some form of mental illness following a diagnosis of COVID-19, she said.

“I hope that education will spread and other families will be saved and other people will be saved, so that they do not have to face such a tragedy,” she said.

Local mental health expert calls for more research

As studies indicate a link between physical illnesses affecting an individual’s mental health, more is needed regarding COVID-19, said Karen Berry, chair of the Wayne and Holmes County Counseling Center.

“I think the long-term effects have yet to be determined,” Berry said.

While Berry is primarily concerned about the impact of the pandemic on the development of children who learn at home, she agrees that COVID-19 could affect mental health.

She hopes this legislation will stimulate more research on the mental side of the pandemic.

“Physical health and behavioral health are so closely linked that there can be a lot of impacts,” she said. “We know, for example, that a number of people suffer from psychosomatic illnesses, and that the psyche can certainly affect our physical state and vice versa.”

Berry would also like to see more research on anxiety and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the pandemic, but more specifically in COVID-19 survivors.

“Certainly for people who have had long hospital stays, maybe close calls, I think it certainly has a serious impact,” she said. “I think it’s possible that they’ll develop PTSD as a result.”

Once the bill is introduced, it will undergo careful scrutiny by the United States House of Representatives, where it will need to be passed before going to the Senate.

For more information, visit the Wayne and Holmes County Counseling Center website. In the event of a crisis, call the CCWHC 24 hour crisis team at 330-264-9029 or 877-264-9029.

A national suicide hotline is also available through the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Contact Bryce by email at [email protected]

On Twitter: @Bryce_Buyakie

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