Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine Might Also Boost Your Mental Health—Here’s How

There's a lot of focus on how the COVID-19 vaccine impacts your physical health, and with good reason. It's crucial to know that the vaccine can dramatically reduce your risk of contracting and becoming severely ill from COVID-19.  The physical benefits are clear, but new research published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine suggests getting jabbed might have mental health benefits.

Researchers analyzed data from a nationally-representative study of 8,090 adults participating in the Understanding America Study. Study participants were interviewed about their mental and physical health between March 2020 and June 2021. Researchers found that people experienced a reduction in how much they thought of COVID-19 as a risk after they were vaccinated—there was also a decline in how stressed out they were by the virus as a whole.

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Adults who received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine between December 2020 and June 2021 reported a 7 percent reduction in mental distress compared to average levels in the survey period. People also had a 6.91 percent decline in how much they perceived their risk of hospitalization and a 4.68 percent decline in their perceived risk of dying from the virus.

Overall, the researchers found that vaccinated people had a 25 percent lower risk of being distressed by the pandemic than those who didn't get the shot. The impact varied slightly by a person's race and ethnicity, with the most significant drops in distress reported in people who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native—two groups that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted. The mental health boost lasted and even became stronger up to at least eight weeks after people were vaccinated, the study found.

"COVID-19 vaccination was associated with declines in distress and perceived risks of infection, hospitalization, and death," the researchers concluded, adding that "vaccination campaigns could promote these additional benefits of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine."

Study co-author Martin McKee, MD, professor of public health and policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says he and his fellow researchers decided to study this because "it is important to know whether people get reassurance from vaccination, on top of the obvious benefits of protection from infection."

Clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcastsays the findings are significant because many people have struggled with mental health during the pandemic. "We've seen an increase in anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation," she says. "Before there was a vaccine available, all we knew was that there was a virus going around that could kill us and hurt our loved ones, and we only had so many ways to protect ourselves."

Pandemic restrictions also added to feelings of isolation and strain on relationships with loved ones who disagreed on pandemic safety measures, Dr. Gallagher points out. "For many people, the vaccine represented some predictability, control, and safety," she says. "Even with the latest Omicron surge, knowing that the majority of people who were seriously ill weren't vaccinated provided some reassurance to those who were."

While Dr. McKee's study didn't focus on the COVID-19 booster shot, he says that "there is no reason to believe that [results] will be different." Dr. Gallagher agrees. "Many people are seeing it as a positive thing, and the results speak for themselves," she says. "We've seen a dramatic reduction in hospitalizations and deaths in those who are vaccinated and boosted. That fear is no longer hanging over people's heads."

While the mental health boost isn't perfect—some vaccinated people still reported being stressed out by the pandemic—the latest findings show a definite impact. Overall, Dr. McKee says, the results indicate that "getting vaccinated is good for your mental health as well as your physical safety."

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