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Unusual sequelae of COVID-19: Texas Roadhouse CEO Kent Taylor kills himself after persistent tinnitus from COVID. Is suicide a complication of this virus?

2021-03-23

A 65 year old man came down with COVID-19 a few months ago. He recovered, mostly, but suffered from debilitating tinnitus and other post-COVID symptoms afterwards. He killed himself a few days ago. This blog post is based on a report in the Washington Post.

This man was very successful, rich even. He worked hard all his life as a restaurant entrepeneur, becoming known as the CEO of a chain, the Texas Roadhouse. When his company went public in 2004, he got a $60 million payout. He was said to have sacrificed part of his fortune to support the employees of his restaurants when they were hit by the pandemic, showing his humanity and empathy.

His death highlights some of the more painful aspects of the last year. Reports of mental illness or emotional distress have dramatically increased since the pandemic encouraged shutdowns all over the world. Suicides have increased both among those affected only by isolation and among those with persistent COVID symptoms.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus (the sensation of hearing a noise when there is no sound, derived from the Latin word which means “tinkling” or “ringing”) is a common symptom that can be trivial or completely debilitating. It is most often a consequence of hearing loss due to exposure to loud noises, like gunfire or music, but can also be caused by ear canal blockage, middle ear infections, medications, or, rarely, brain disorders.

The sensation of tinnitus is usually described as a buzzing noise, roaring, ringing, clicking, or humming. The sound of tinnitus may be constant or intermittent. It is most obvious (and distressing) in quiet places and at night. There are no really good treatments for tinnitus, but the most effective remedy in mild or moderate cases is to have a blocking noise going– like music, or specially adapted hearing aids that produce a buzzing sound.

The symptoms of tinnitus may be completely destructive to a person’s feeling of well-being or even sanity. There are anecdotes of people committing suicide because they cannot tolerate the symptoms. Another Washington Post article on tinnitus and COVID states that 50 million Americans have experiences with tinnitus, and some 2 million have “extreme and debilitating cases” that could cause severe distress.

Does COVID cause tinnitus or predispose to suicide?

The virus can cause damage to the audio-vestibular system, which helps us with standing upright and maintaining our balance as well as hearing. This systematic review discusses what is known about COVID and the audio-vestibular system.

This being said, one wonders whether the single symptom of tinnitus alone could cause a person to kill themselves unless the sensation is overwhelming. Surely there are contributing symptoms that lead to the decision to end your life? Despair, self-hatred, failure, unrelenting pain, loss of loved ones?

A famous case of suicide occurred many months ago, at the beginning of the pandemic: a highly accomplished, young emergency room physician who appeared to recover quickly from the virus returned to work but was unable to tolerate it or even fulfill the functions of her job. She killed herself within a few weeks after coming down with COVID. She was said to have no prior history of depression (although no-one knows for sure about this subtle and often hidden symptom.)

COVID and psychosis

What if COVID itself is the cause of this psychotic breakdown?

I raise this possibility because it has been raised by others, including in the comments section to the article in the Washington Post. Many people have suffered neurological and psychological problems related to COVID, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that suicidal depression could be caused by the virus as well.

Even a commenter to the above-mentioned article mentioned that they had remarkably strange dreams for months after a severe bout of COVID. They were hospitalized with pneumonia but recovered, apparently completely. The only residual was a new onset of frighteningly strange, memorable dreams. It may be that this person remembered their dreams for the first time– after all, dreams are strange, even scary, routinely, but you normally don’t remember them at all or only in scraps.

Other people have had psychotic episodes labelled as schizophrenia with no remission (yet)– see, again, the comment section of the above-mentioned article.

The possibility that infection with this virus leads to a risk of depression and suicidal impulses deserves to be carefully researched. If a causative relation can be found, it may be advisable to closely observe recovered patients for subtle signs of depression. Close observation is essential because symptoms may be covered up or unrecognized by the patient.

Remember, if you yourself or a close one (or even someone you just care about) feels suicidal, help is always available. If worse comes to worst, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

(photo by Jakub Orisek courtesy of pixabay.com)

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