Depression may make people more likely to believe COVID misinformation

They found that people with depression were 2.2 times more likely to endorse misinformation about the vaccines.

Maija Kappler 4 minute read January 24, 2022
Two people a man and a woman in masks among the molecules OF covind coronavirus and red virus 2019-nCoV Inscription warning

The results don't indicate that depression causes people to be susceptible to fake news. GETTY

Vaccine misinformation is one of the most pressing health issues of the present moment, continuing to threaten the effectiveness of measures aimed at ending the pandemic.

Experts have previously spoken about some of the reasons people might subscribe to vaccine misinformation. But a new study from the Massachusetts General Hospital may shed light on one underlying condition that might make people more vulnerable to that specific kind of incorrect information: depression.

“One of the notable things about depression is that it can cause people to see the world differently — sort of the opposite of rose-coloured glasses. That is, for some depressed people, the world appears as a particularly dark and dangerous place,” the study’s lead author Roy H. Perlis told the hospital’s news outlet.

“We wondered whether people seeing the world this way might also be more susceptible to believing misinformation about vaccines. If you already think the world is a dangerous place, you might be more inclined to believe that vaccines are dangerous — even though they are not.”

Researchers surveyed 15,464 American adults from across the country between May and July. In an online questionnaire, the participants answered questions that measured symptoms of depression followed by questions about COVID-vaccines.

They found that people with depression were 2.2 times more likely to endorse misinformation about the vaccines. And that had real-world consequences: people who agreed with at least one incorrect statement about vaccines were 2.7 times more likely to be vaccine-resistant, and half as likely as other respondents to be vaccinated.

Two months later, a small group of the original respondents — 2,809 this time — filled out another survey. They found that the people who had had depression the first time were twice as likely as other people to endorse even more vaccine misinformation than they had originally.

This finding indicated to researchers that people were more susceptible to misinformation after they had been depressed for a while.

“While we can’t conclude that depression caused this susceptibility, looking at a second wave of data at least told us that the depression came before the misinformation,” Perlis said. “It wasn’t that misinformation was making people more depressed.”

However, the results don’t indicate that depression causes people to be susceptible to fake news, he said. “Our result suggests that, by addressing the extremely high levels of depression in this country during COVID, we might decrease people’s susceptibility to misinformation. Of course, we can only show an association—we can’t show that the depression causes​ the susceptibility, but it’s certainly suggestive that it might.”

The pandemic itself has had devastating effects on people’s mental health: the survey found that depression levels in the United States were at least three times higher than what they were before COVID. That lines up with what’s happening here, too: one in three Canadians is struggling with their mental health, according to an Angus Reid poll released Monday, Jan. 24. That’s a jump up from one in four Canadians who said the same in November, before the Omicron wave. More worrying, seven per cent said their mental health is terrible and they’re barely getting by — almost double the four per cent who said the same since October 2020. Poorer mental health has also been reported in people between the ages of 18 and 34, and people in lower-income households.

And the majority of Canadians — 66 per cent — say they feel that anxiety and depression have worsened in their friends and family since the pandemic started.

Maija Kappler is a reporter and editor at Healthing. You can reach her at mkappler@postmedia.com
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