Want less pandemic stress? Consider getting vaccinated

September 9, 2021

A USC Dornsife study finds that people who received a COVID-19 vaccine shot experienced a decrease in mental distress such as anxiety and depression.

Contact: Jenesse Miller, 213-810-8554 or jenessem@usc.edu

COVID-19 vaccines are more than just a way to reduce infection from coronavirus. New results from an ongoing USC study show the shot in the arm brings stress relief as well.

The latest Understanding Coronavirus in America Study reveals that those who received a COVID-19 vaccine when the shots were first made available experienced reduced anxiety after just one dose.

While the vaccine’s expected physical benefits — including protection from infection, life-threatening symptoms and hospitalization — are obvious, the resulting mental health benefits have received less consideration, until now.

Researchers from the Center for Economic and Social Research at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences previously looked at the mental health effects of the pandemic. When beginning this study, they hypothesized that mental distress would decrease among those vaccinated against COVID.

The results appear today in the journal PLOS ONE. They represent the latest findings in the study tracking the well-being of about 8,000 adult residents of the United States during the pandemic, with results from March 2020 through March 2021.
Vaccinated people more likely to experience a reduction in mental distress.

The study compared changes in mental health of people vaccinated for COVID-19 and people who were unvaccinated. Researchers started tracked participants’ mental health before vaccines were made available to set a baseline and then looked for changes after vaccines were available.

To measure depression and anxiety levels, the researchers asked study participants a standard series of four questions known as the Patient Health Questionnaire-4, or PHQ-4. Two questions measure depressive symptoms and two questions measure anxiety symptoms.

The participants’ answers showed that vaccinated people were significantly more likely to experience a reduction in mental distress. Participants receiving a COVID-19 vaccine experienced a 15% reduction in the likelihood of feeling severely depressed and a 4% reduction in the likelihood of feeling at least mildly depressed.

Applying the estimated impacts from the nationally representative sample to the total number of people (approximately 100 million) who got at least one vaccine shot by the end of March 2021, researchers estimate about 1 million stopped experiencing mild mental distress and about 700,000 stopped experiencing severe mental distress.

The findings suggest that the COVID-19 vaccine does more than protect your physical health — it also has significant mental health benefits.

Francisco Perez-Arce, the study’s lead author and an economist at the Center for Economic and Social Research, noted that the mental health benefits of vaccination may be even larger than what the study had measured.

“We didn’t track changes in the mental health of study participants after their family, friends and others were vaccinated,” he said. “I think that’s likely to substantially increase the mental health value of vaccination campaigns.”

The study authors said the effects they identified could result from one of or a combination of mechanisms. Those who are recently vaccinated may become less worried about getting infected or become more socially active, and some may venture into different work opportunities. Future research should investigate how getting vaccinated achieved these mental health benefits.

Perez-Arce suggested several additional questions to explore in future studies as the pandemic continues, including how timing of eligibility affected people’s anxiety and whether the mental health of those who were vaccinated early changed after they heard the news regarding breakthrough cases arising from the delta variant. Researchers could also explore the mental health benefits of booster shots.

About the survey

The Understanding Coronavirus in America Study is a biweekly tracking survey aimed at understanding the impacts of the pandemic. It includes a panel of Americans who answer questions regularly from the online Understanding America Study, a nationally representative longitudinal study of Americans 18 and older.

  • Respondents answered surveys at regular intervals from March 2020 through March 2021 to allow tracking how people’s perceptions, behaviors and outcomes evolved.
  • Variables measured included PHQ-4 (four-item Patient Health Questionnaire) scores and, beginning Dec. 23, 2020, their vaccination status.
  • The current study’s sample included answers from just over 8,000 participants.
  • The data comprise more than 157,000 observations.

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