- Although vaccines are designed to protect us from physical disease, the COVID-19 vaccine may also be highly beneficial to mental health.
- Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 may allow people to worry less about loved ones, feel safer, and take back their lives.
- Even mild cases of COVID-19 can be followed by symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD, which may be avoided with vaccination.
When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, we’ve reached an inflection point. Just a few weeks ago, people were scrambling for a chance to get vaccinated, but now there is plenty vaccine and some people aren’t sure about getting it. And that’s why it’s time to look at the mental health benefits of the vaccine.
Mental health is not something we normally connect with vaccination, because vaccines are designed to protect us from physical disease. But getting vaccinated is a way of taking our lives back from the pandemic, and that’s powerful. The first thing the COVID-19 vaccine does for mental health is simply preventing problems before they happen. New research finds that even mild cases of COVID-19 are followed by significant symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, in 26 percent, 22 percent, and 17 percent of people, respectively. And those consequences occurred for large numbers of people who had never experienced mental health problems before.
One theory for why the rate of mental health problems is so high after coronavirus infection has to do with the viral spike protein. That protein invades the brain and causes a storm of inflammation, which could incite mental illness.
Another scary consequence of infection is a bizarre symptom called phantosmia, an increasingly reported post-COVID symptom in which people smell disgusting odors that are not actually there. One woman told me that six months after her infection she still smells feces all the time. It's cut her off from one of the great joys of her life: cooking. And that's a problem because it puts her at risk for depression. Research has found that “patients with olfactory dysfunction have symptoms of depression that worsen with the severity of smell loss.”
But if avoiding problems is not reason enough to get the vaccine, consider the second reason that full vaccination against COVID-19 is good for mental health: It makes people feel much more hopeful and safe.
Getting Vaccinated Feels Good
Shelley West of Naperville, Illinois, had underestimated just how much she needed a sense of calm and safety. “Psychologically, getting the vaccine instantly created a sense of relief,” she says.
“There were levels to the experience. I was deeply worried about my parents and my in-laws. When they got their vaccines and I knew they were less vulnerable, I felt better,” she explains. “Then getting my own vaccination, even the first shot, allowed me to step back from the fight or flight stance I realized, in hindsight, that I’d been in for over a year. I literally took a cleansing breath walking away from my appointment. Mentally and emotionally, the vaccine offered me optimism and hope bundled in science.”
She’s not alone. I’ve lost track of all the people who’ve told me how much better they feel now that they’ve been vaccinated. People have told me that it felt like a physical weight lifted or that the world actually looked brighter. I hear about how much less anxiety they feel, and how they feel a new sense of freedom and fun.
Anxiety Relief Doesn't Mean People Forget Safety
Responses like that might make public health officials worry that too much anxiety relief could lead people to stop wearing masks and taking other precautions. That’s not what I’m seeing in my practice. These are parents of kids who’ve had a rough year dealing with remote work and learning, and they definitely deserve to feel safer after their vaccines. But the folks I’ve been talking to are not throwing caution to the wind.
Most parents I talk to understand that COVID-19 has mutated and that various tricky strains may be with us for a long time. But they also know that the vaccine has reduced their chance of dying from the virus and leaving their kids without a parent to almost zero. And that’s huge from a mental health perspective.
Consider Dayana Mayfield’s perspective when she tweeted about what vaccination did for her: “I immediately felt like I had joined the new normal—where kids can go to school and we can do fun things with our family and friends, even if it means we have to get this vaccine regularly.”
Observing how much it has helped people’s emotional well-being to get vaccinated against COVID-19, I encourage those of you on the fence to get vaccinated yourselves. And as a pediatrician, I cannot wait to see how much happier our kids will be when they can be vaccinated too.
After getting vaccinated, you could feel as wonderful as this man: