The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an enormous toll on people's mental health and has brought immense distress in the form of depression, anxiety and, in the worst scenarios, even suicides. Essential factors like loss of jobs, financial burdens, health risks among other things have led to severe psychological consequences over the past one-and-a-half year. In the US, mental health distress rose steeply during the initial phases of the COVID-19 crisis and steadily took a dip over time.
Various factors contributed to the rise in mental health problems in the pandemic. Some studies suggested that economic factors were the most commonly associated with worsening mental distress, while concerns about their health and social distance were also correlated. The improvement in economic factors and the release of public economic support in the form of unemployment insurance and stimulus checks may have been a reason for the recovery of mental health since April last year. Studies reveal that sleep problems were common during the COVID-19 crisis, which was associated with depression among the general population.
Now, studies have shown that getting a COVID-19 vaccine can significantly give potential benefits to mental health.
What The Research Says
The research by the Center for Economic and Social Research (CESR) at the University of Southern California Dornsife College, published recently in the journal PLOS One, helped researchers give a better understanding of the relationship between physical and mental health.
The scientists are optimistic that these findings could help public health experts better handle pandemic-like emergencies in the future. The study found short-term changes in mental distress after inoculation of the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
More than 8,000 adult persons were surveyed based on the address at regular intervals between March 10, 2020, and March 31, 2021. The sampled participants completed at least two waves of the survey. The respondents answered questions about COVID-19 vaccine status and self-reported mental distress as measured with the four-item Patient Health Questionnaire. Fixed-effects regression models were used to register the change in PHQ-4 scores and categorical indicators of mental distress resulting from applying the first jab of the COVID-19 vaccine.
People who were inoculated between December 2020 and March this year reported reduced mental distress levels in the surveys conducted after getting the first jab. The fixed-effects estimates display an average effect of receiving the vaccine equivalent to 4 per cent of the standard deviation of PHQ-4 scores, a reduction in 1 percentage point in the probability of being at least moderately depressed, and of 0.7 percentage points in the probability of being highly depressed (p-value = 0.06).
Huge Improvements After Getting Vaccinated
Getting the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine resulted in huge improvements in mental health, beyond improvements already achieved since mental distress rose sharply in the spring of 2020.
All participants were 18 years or more. On March 10, 2020, panelists were invited to answer the first survey (which remained open until the end of March). UCAS participants were invited to answer surveys every two weeks. This frequency was chosen to allow tracking how people's perceptions, behaviours and outcomes evolved throughout the crisis. After February 16, the 14-day cycle was replaced by a four-week cycle, so that since then respondents could answer questions every four weeks, between April 1, 2020, and February 16, 2021. Participants were randomly assigned a number between one and 14, which marked the day on which they were asked to answer the survey. Upon invitation, the respondent had 14 days to complete the survey.
Earlier work showed that the intensity of mental distress peaked in mid-April to early May last year and declined after that. It also revealed how those trajectories differed for demographic groups. The study documented how mental health has diverged between vaccinated individuals and those who have not been innoculated yet. By comparing the trajectories, the researchers learned about the short-term effect of vaccination on person's mental health.
The results were, however, short-term direct effects of getting the first dose of COVID vaccine. The overall contribution of vaccine uptake on improving mental health outcomes is much more significant, as it affects not only vaccinated individuals but unvaccinated ones. An unvaccinated person may still benefit from the reduced prevalence rates in the population, become less worried about the people he loves, and may benefit from rising social and economic opportunities if the vaccine rollout results in more social and economic activity due to lower disease risk.
There are some limitations to this research. It is possible that the difference in trajectories across those vaccinated and unvaccinated rose not due to a causal effect of receiving the dose but from sorting at the time of the vaccine rollout, such that people with a likelihood of becoming less depressed were also more likely to decide to get jabbed. To investigate that possibility, a person can take advantage of different dates at which people in different groups have become eligible for vaccination.