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Mental Health Professionals Can Encourage Patients to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine, Here’s How

Black woman talking to her online therapist

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Key Takeaways

  • Minimal research has been done regarding mental health and vaccination behavior.
  • Three areas for intervention by mental health professionals include what is thought and felt, social experiences, and options for adjusting behavior.
  • Mental health professionals may be in a unique position to assist with vaccine deliberation, especially with groups who have experienced medical trauma.

Approximately 140 million Americans still aren’t fully vaccinated against COVID-19. To address this, a viewpoint published in JAMA Psychiatry recommends that mental health professionals consider what their clients think and feel, their social experiences, and their opportunities for behavioral change.

Despite increasing government measures to address the impact of COVID-19, variants continue to pose a threat for the unvaccinated, so mental health professionals have a responsibility to assist with vaccine deliberation.

Increasing Vaccination Model

The Increasing Vaccination Model (IVM) has been adapted and used by both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to address any mental health barriers.

This model recommends that mental health professionals intervene based on thoughts and feelings, social processes, and direct behavior change, with the understanding that younger adults have been slow to get vaccinated, which can align with the onset of mental health concerns for many.

By addressing thoughts and feelings regarding vaccines with ongoing therapeutic rapport, and facilitating opportunities to get vaccinated, mental health professionals can help their patients make an informed decision and hopefully sway individuals towards COVID-19 vaccination.

Thinking and Feeling

Since mental health professionals often use behavior change strategies in therapeutic sessions with clients, they may be well-suited to identify such opportunities regarding any COVID-19 vaccination internal conflicts.

Social Processes

For mental health clinicians who have been working with clients successfully for an extended period of time, their recommendations regarding the COVID-19 vaccination are likely to be well-received.

Direct Behavior Change

Even when some mental health patients are interested in getting the COVID-19 vaccine, such challenges as executive functioning may pose a barrier, so therapists can assist by addressing issues of access.

Addressing Emotional Barriers

Akua K. Boateng, PhD, LPC, says “Mental health concerns could present a barrier to vaccine confidence. This research is supportive to our awareness as mental health practitioners as well as the public to address the emotional concerns related to vaccine hesitancy.”

Boateng explains, “Many people living with anxiety face internal barriers to getting the vaccine as well as feeling comfortable post-vaccine. Health-related fears and phobias may arise with health issues that surface after getting the vaccine even if those issues are unrelated.”

Despite limited research regarding mental health and vaccines, Boateng highlights that the research presented in this article aligns with previous research linking mental illness and health maintenance. “It is fair to consider the ways mental illness may impact a client’s ability to self-advocate, comfort level with medical professionals, and maintaining medical appointments,” she says.

Akua K. Boateng, PhD, LPC

It is fair to consider the ways mental illness may impact a client’s ability to self-advocate, comfort level with medical professionals, and maintaining medical appointments.

— Akua K. Boateng, PhD, LPC

Boateng says, “There has been mixed evidence in my practice surrounding vaccine hesitancy. While one would assume anxiety and depression clients would have barriers, many have not. Getting the vaccine has been a comfort to many of my clients. Other factors such as religion have surfaced as larger barriers to vaccine compliance.”

Behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South Florida Inc., psychiatrist Howard Pratt, DO, says, “I don’t see how this research could be any clearer. Mental health professionals can absolutely guide and help people get access to COVID-19 vaccinations and encourage them to get vaccinated.”

Dr. Pratt discusses how he is pleased that his workplace, Community Health of South Florida, offers vaccinations just down the hall from him, as there have been many times when he has seen a patient who has asked about the COVID-19 vaccine, and whether he and his family are vaccinated. “I’m able to tell them, yes, and this often adds to their willingness to get vaccinated and to encourage others to do so,” he says.

The Importance of Trust

Dr. Pratt explains that patients may relate to him with the mentality of “I don’t care what you know until I know that you care” so therapeutic rapport can be crucial. “The nature of the relationship between people and their mental health care providers is often more intimate than their relationship with other health care providers,” he says.

Howard Pratt, DO

The nature of the relationship between people and their mental health care providers is often more intimate than their relationship with other health care providers.

— Howard Pratt, DO

“It’s not uncommon for someone to approach me with a question about some issue they heard about first from their primary care physician. Often because of the nature of the relationship between a mental health care provider and their patient, there’s the opportunity to build a greater level of trust and a clearer sense that the mental health care provider cares for them so they are apt to give special attention to what that mental health care provider says and recommends,” says Dr. Pratt.

Therefore, a mental health professional could potentially have more sway over someone’s decision of whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine—because they’ve cultivated that level of trust.

What This Means For You

Mental health professionals may be in a unique position to assist with any COVID-19 vaccine deliberation. If you or your loved ones remain unvaccinated, it may be beneficial to discuss any concerns with your mental health practitioner. Especially as variants continue to impact the US, such a therapy discussion has the potential to save lives.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Brewer NT, Abad N. Ways that mental health professionals can encourage COVID-19 vaccinationJAMA Psychiatry. Published online September 23, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.2951