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Vaccine distribution and mental health

How vaccine distribution creates hope for people struggling with mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

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With the beginning of the distribution of the vaccine, the discussion on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic is changing. Now comes the time to discuss some new questions: How do we recover? How do we reach the light at the end of the tunnel? Where does our mental health go from here? 

“I was fortunate enough to be able to get my vaccination, and I was ecstatic,” Jane Simoni, professor and director of clinical training in the UW department of psychology, said. “I felt great that although I was following guidelines, I would feel more protected, and I wanted to be a role model.” 

The vaccination is coming out at a fast rate, with relatively high availability. But some people are still wary of getting their hopes up.

“My experience probably mirrors a lot of people’s experiences,” Simoni said. “It’s been a roller coaster up and down. We hear some good news, and then it gets scaled back. Last spring the numbers were ending, and I thought we’re gonna be in phase three by the end of June, and that didn’t happen. So I think what has been hardest for me are the disappointments. When you think there was some progress it felt like two steps forward, one back; sometimes two steps forward, three back.”

To reach herd immunity, the point at which enough people are vaccinated or immune from a disease that it’s unlikely to spread interpersonally, between 70 and 90% of the population must be vaccinated, according to the New York Times.

According to Simoni, several studies have shown an increase in depression and anxiety during the pandemic, but the severity depends on individuals' circumstances. 

“There really are disparities: if they had a predisposed psychological problem, earlier stressors, people who are frontline workers,” Simoni said. 

More than 42% of people surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau in December 2020 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, up 11% from the previous year, according to Nature Briefing.

Worse, there appears to be a racial disparity with how mental health has impacted people during the pandemics, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). 

KFF found that 48% of non-Hispanic Black people reported experiencing anxiety and depression during the pandemic, whereas 41% of non-Hispanic white people reported experiencing these symptoms. Along with this, non-Hispanic white people were the second smallest percentage of people reporting depression and anxiety during the pandemic. 

According to Simoni, other disparities that may have caused worsening mental health include people who experienced serious illness during COVID-19, those who lost businesses or income, and those who have to keep up with childcare while also trying to work. 

People have found themselves making active steps to improve their mental health during this time period.

“I have been doing some strategies that are recommended — like having a routine, sleep hygiene, getting up and going to bed at the same times, watching some news but not [as] much during the stressful times,” Simoni said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends practices such as taking care of your body, taking time to unwind, connecting with others, and connecting with your community.

“I have been following the CDC, because for me the more information I have, the more confident I feel and the more empowered I feel about my decisions,” Simoni said.

The vaccine represents hope for a lot of people, but there are still lingering concerns. The new, more infectious strain of COVID-19 that the UK is struggling with has been found in the United States (and in Washington state specifically).

“I think a lot of epidemiologists are holding their breath right now, to see which direction we are gonna go,” Simoni said.

With all this in mind, the vaccine has created something that we didn’t have before: a sense of hope.

“I am hopeful in some ways,” Simoni said. “But I am still wary yet again of being disappointed … I have learned to temper my optimism.”

Reach contributing writer Mary Murphy at wellness@dailyuw.comTwitter: @marymurphy301

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