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COVID-19 vaccinations helped to improve mental health for many by reducing concerns about developing the disease. Getty Images
  • A new study reports that people who received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine had improved mental health.
  • However, those who had yet not received it felt even more mental distress.
  • Experts say the vaccines provided people with hope for an end to the pandemic.
  • They also counteracted feelings of powerlessness against the disease.

When you received your first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, did you feel a sense of relief? A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that this was a common feeling for many people in the United States.

Survey participants reported feeling less depression and anxiety after receiving their initial dose of a vaccine.

However, those who had not yet received their first dose actually reported feeling even more mental distress.

For this study, lead author Francisco Perez-Arce, PhD, an economist with the Center for Economic and Social Research (CESR), and his team of researchers surveyed 8,003 adults participating in the Understanding America Study, an ongoing investigation looking at people from around the United States.

Participants were surveyed at regular intervals between March 10 and March 31, 2021. All completed at least two waves of the survey.

They were required to answer questions about their vaccine status and their levels of depression and anxiety based on the four-item Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-4).

Researchers then analyzed the results to determine the change in PHQ-4 scores after participants received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Researchers found that those who received their first dose of a vaccine between December 2020 and March 2021 experienced a 4 percent reduction in their risk of being mildly depressed.

They also had a 15 percent reduction in their risk of being severely depressed.

On the other hand, those who had not yet received the vaccine began to feel even more anxious and depressed.

The authors did note, however, that those who experienced relief after receiving the vaccine were also people at greater risk of becoming severely ill or dying.

Jennifer A. King, DSW, LISW, assistant professor and co-director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity at Case Western Reserve University, said she feels that improvements were seen in people’s mental health because the vaccines offered people hope.

“Across demographics, we’ve seen increases in anxiety symptoms, depression symptoms, and, most notably, staggeringly high rates of trauma-related symptoms,” she said.

“Add to that the grief incurred by major losses (death, economic loss, loss of control, loss of identity), the forced isolation of lockdown and quarantines, and the sustained high levels of stress that are related to all of this, and it is easy to see why many, many of us are not OK.”

King said that after months of uncertainly and unpredictability, the vaccines brought hope because an end to the pandemic appeared to be in sight.

King also noted that anxiety is often related to a lack of control and a sense of powerlessness.

Taking action, such as getting a vaccine, is an antidote to powerlessness, she explained.

Perez-Arce agreed that the availability of vaccines made people feel more optimistic about the course of the disease.

“Results from the Understanding Coronavirus in America Study show very steep rises in mental distress at the very beginning of the pandemic (from March to April 2020),” he said.

He noted that since then, there has been recovery as people have adapted to the pandemic.

“This study shows that after they became available, vaccinations helped to improve mental health further by reducing concerns about getting the disease,” Perez-Arce said.

He further noted that receiving the vaccine may improve people’s economic outlook and enable people to resume their previous activities, such as socializing and returning to in-person work, which have also been sources of depression and anxiety during the pandemic.

King added that it’s important to realize that all responses to the stress of COVID-19 are valid.

“There is nothing wrong with you if you’re feeling more worried or more scared or sadder or angrier,” she said. “You are responding normally to abnormal circumstances. Be gentle with yourselves and with each other.”