COVID-19: Can mental health experts help improve vaccine hesitancy?

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Given that uptake of vaccines is low among young adults — and young adulthood is the age of onset for many mental health problems, mental health experts are uniquely suited to help overcome resistance to COVID-19 vaccination. This is the message of an opinion column that appeared in September in JAMA Psychiatry.

As we approach the second anniversary of the emergence of the pandemic illness now known as COVID-19, it has become clear that available vaccines confer significant protection against the worst ravages of the disease. Of course, COVID-19 is a potentially life-threatening, multisystem illness caused by the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2.

The authors, Dr. Noel T. Brewer and Dr. Neetu Abad, of the column note: “Mental health professionals and teams are trained to use empathy, reflective listening, and cooperative goal setting to help patients address challenges. […] Engaging new approaches for increasing adult vaccination is a national priority.”

COVID-19: Can mental health experts help improve vaccine hesitancy?

Dr. Brewer is the Gillings Distinguished Professor in Public Health at the University of North Carolina.

In an email interview with Medical News Today, Dr. Brewer wrote: “COVID-19 vaccination is our passport to greater personal freedom. It allows us to safely go to stores, hang out with friends, and visit loved ones who are ill. It may even be required by airlines soon. We have seen COVID-19 cases overwhelm hospitals in several states.”

The stakes are high, Dr. Brewer notes, adding: “To avoid a national meltdown in emergency care this winter, the nation needs to get its COVID-19 vaccine coverage up higher. Mental health professionals can work with their clients to work through concerns and help them navigate getting a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Available vaccines have proved highly effective at preventing the worst symptoms of SARS-CoV-2 infection. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots are mRNA vaccines. This means that they contain instructions for our cells to make just one small segment of a key component of the SARS-CoV-2 virus: the spike protein. The “m” stands for “messenger.”

By itself, this snippet of protein is harmless. But it supplies enough “information” to the immune system for the body to identify and neutralize the living virus if it encounters it. Unlike older, inactivated virus-based vaccines, mRNA vaccines do not contain any potentially infectious material. Whether these vaccines actually prevent infection is less clear. But they can help prevent hospitalizations and deaths.

In fact, emerging data from the United States and elsewhere indicate that the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are now occurring among unvaccinated people.

Clearly, vaccinating as many people as possible is of paramount importance to public health.

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