COVID-19 vaccines may be beneficial at preventing more than severe disease and death, a new study on mental health suggests.

According to the Understanding America Study, which was conducted from March 2020 to June 2021 and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, COVID-19 vaccines may have an effect on mental health by alleviating the psychological distress that people are feeling during the pandemic.

Several factors are contributing to mental health distress, researchers said, including job and income loss, food insecurity, social isolation, caregiver burden, substance abuse, and racial discrimination.

Mental health symptoms have persisted and increased into 2021, the study found, with many Americans feeling anticipatory fears that are adding to the increase in mental health problems in the U.S.

For the study, researchers interviewed 8,090 Americans regularly to determine if their vaccinations reduced their distress regarding their perceived risk of COVID infection, hospitalization, or death from the virus.

Through the study, researchers found that COVID vaccines were linked to a decrease in distress associated with the virus, resulting in a 7.77% decline in the perceived risk of contracting COVID-19. They also saw a 6.91% drop in perceived risk of hospitalization and a 4.68% decline in perceived risk of death from the virus.

Researchers said it was noteworthy that “becoming vaccinated made people feel safer in addition to being safer.”

In a statement, Jonathan Koltai, assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and lead investigator of the study, said, “ Our study documents important psychological benefits of vaccination beyond reducing the risk of severe illness and death associated with COVID-19.”

Researchers also saw that the effectiveness of the vaccination to impact mental health differed by race, with American Indians and Alaska Native individuals seeing the largest risk reductions. The highest rate of vaccinations among study participants was among Asian and Pacific Islanders, with the lowest rates of vaccinations observed among Black participants.

“To ensure these benefits are widely shared, efforts to increase vaccination and booster rates in early 2022 need to prioritize equitable distribution and access to vaccines,” Koltai said.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 4 in 10 U.S. adults has reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 64.5% of the eligible U.S. population is fully vaccinated.

A medic prepares a dose of Pfizer vaccine to be used as a fourth shot at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv in December 2021 A medic prepares a dose of Pfizer vaccine to be used as a fourth shot at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv in December 2021 Photo: AFP / JACK GUEZ