A team of investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) examined whether people with depressive symptoms are more likely to be more receptive to misinformation related to Covid-19.

The findings of their study published in JAMA Network Open showed that overall levels of depression in the over 15,000 participants were significantly elevated, at least three times higher than before the pandemic. Additionally, the team found that people with moderate or major depressive symptoms were more likely to believe in at least one of four false statements about Covid-19 vaccination and were, therefore, more likely to be vaccine-hesitant.

The erroneous statements, based on widespread anti-vaxxer propaganda, included:

  • The Covid-19 vaccines will alter people’s DNA.
  • The Covid-19 vaccines contain microchips that could track people.
  • The Covid-19 vaccines contain the lung tissue of aborted foetuses.
  • The Covid-19 vaccines can cause infertility, making it more difficult to get pregnant.

Specifically, the presence of depression was associated with a 2.2-times higher likelihood of endorsing the misinformative statements, with such respondents being half as likely to be vaccinated and 2.7 times more likely to report vaccine resistance.

Mean world syndrome and Covid-19

Subsequent survey analysis also found that respondents who initially displayed symptoms of depression and beliefs based on misinformation were twice as likely, than those without depression to endorse further misinformed or conspiratorial opinions later on.

Lead author, Doctor Roy H. Perlis, associate chief of research in the Department of Psychiatry and director of the Center for Quantitative Health at MGH, said:

“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.”

“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.”

Dr Perlis stressed that the results of his survey in no way blames misinformation on people with depression but rather it suggests that depression may have a causational relationship or make people more vulnerable to believing in this form of misinformation.

Rather than judging the misinformed opinions of the participants, the researchers stated that they want that the survey findings to give a renewed sense of motivation to policymakers so they can ensure that everyone has timely access to treatment for anxiety and depression.

The findings of the MGH survey are reminiscent of Professor George Gerbner’s research into mean world syndrome, a term coined by Gerbner in the late 1960s.

He concluded from his research into communications that there is a direct correlation between the amount of television one watches and individual perceptions and feelings of victimisation, intimidation, and pessimism. In other words, according to Pro Gerbner, specific media exposures facilitate and support the formation of negative cogitative biases.

However, intriguingly in terms of the MGH survey and Covid-19, there is a reversal in causality as the depressive symptoms came before the harmful media consumption. As Dr Perlis commented: “While we can’t conclude that depression caused this susceptibility [for conspiratorial thoughts], looking at a second wave of data at least told us that the depression came before the misinformation. That is, it wasn’t that misinformation was making people more depressed.”

This conclusion further underlines the crucial role of well-funded mental health services, as part of the intricate web of Covid-19 public health measures, in preventing unnecessary deaths from unscientific misunderstanding and anti-vax propaganda.