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  • The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a significant rise in mental distress around the world.
  • A recent study in the United States concludes that getting the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine significantly improved mental health.
  • Specifically, the researchers investigated the link between receiving a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine and short-term improvements in mental health.
  • The results may help explain how pandemic-related stressors exacerbate mental health distress and how vaccines help out.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has disturbed vital aspects of people’s lives — finances, work, socialization — potentially affecting their mental health. This resulted in an increase in mental distress in people in many countries of the world.

One study shows that levels of mental distress went up in the U.S. around March 2020 and only returned to pre-pandemic levels in August 2020.

Researchers attribute this trend to various factors, including fear about the pandemic’s impact on the economy, concerns over the rising number of COVID-19 cases, and physical distancing measures.

With the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, a group of scientists embarked on a study to compare mental health improvements in people who received a vaccine with the improvements in those who did not. The results appear in the journal PLOS ONE.

The scientists conclude that “getting the first dose of COVID-19 [vaccine] resulted in significant improvements in mental health, beyond improvements already achieved since mental distress peaked in the spring of 2020.”

Lead study collaborator, Dr. Francisco Perez-Arce, an economist at USC in Washington, described the study, which began in March 2020, to Medical News Today.

“Very early on in the pandemic, in March of 2020, we started a panel to track the multiple impacts of the pandemic on several outcomes, including mental health. Our panelists, who are respondents from the Understanding America Study, answered surveys every 2 weeks or so, which has allowed us to track trajectories in many variables, such as mental health and vaccination status,” he said.

“Looking at the impact of getting vaccinated allows us to study the extent to which reducing your health risks relieves mental distress,” he concluded.

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Dr. Perez-Arce and his colleagues surveyed 8,003 adult participants between March 10, 2020, and March 31, 2021.

They asked the participants, selected from the Understanding America Study (UAS), which is a nationally representative longitudinal study of Americans aged 18 years or older, to complete at least two study waves.

The participants answered questions about their COVID-19 vaccine status and self-reported mental distress levels, which the researchers then measured using the four-item Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-4).

Between April 1, 2020, and February 16, 2021, the study authors measured the responses every 2 weeks. After that period, they measured them every 4 weeks. Altogether, the total data consisted of about 157,227 respondent-wave observations.

The study authors analyzed the data using two parameters: mental distress levels and vaccination status.

They measured the distress levels with the help of the PHQ-4 questionnaire, which uses two items each to measure depressive and anxiety symptoms, respectively.

They graded responses to each section between 0 and 4 and then summed them to create an index range between 0 and 16. Higher numbers on the scale corresponded with higher levels of mental distress.

Starting from December 2020, the respondents answered whether they had received their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. Based on the answers, the scientists assigned the participants specific values.

They used these values to compare the mental health trajectory of the people who received a vaccine at some point during the study with the mental health trajectory of those who never received a vaccine.

The results show that both groups had a similar direction until December 2020, when the first vaccine became available. After that point, there was a noticeable difference in baseline levels of mental health in both groups.

This led the researchers to conclude that there are short-term direct effects of getting the first vaccine shot.

Furthermore, they note that the effect the vaccines have on mental health spreads to others. They explain, “An unvaccinated individual may still benefit from the reduced prevalence rates in the population, may become less worried about loved ones, and may benefit from increased social and economic opportunities.”

Sara Makin, founder and CEO of Makin Wellness, an online mental health counseling service, shares this sentiment.

Makin said to MNT, “It may be useful for the public to note that the vaccine has not only eased mental distress for those who have received the vaccine but also for those who have not received the vaccine.”

She added:

“Given how political the choice to get vaccinated or not has become, it seems that knowing a vaccine exists is useful for everyone. This information could help to decrease the strong emotions on both sides and create space for a conversation.”

Additionally, Makin told MNT that, despite improvements in mental distress associated with the vaccine, not everyone feels better. “For many people, returning to the ‘new normal’ is still a scary thought, and [their fears] are completely valid.”

Although the research is positive news, it is not without its limitations.

For instance, the researchers explain that sorting differences might have played a part. In other words, people with lower risk of developing depression may have been more likely to decide to get a vaccine.

The authors hope that future research might dig a little deeper into these findings to understand why they observed this reversal of mental distress.

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