Depression linked to belief in COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

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A converted call center acting as a COVID-19 vaccination center on December 16, 2021, near Ramsgate, UK. Leon Neal/WPA Pool/Getty Images
  • The researchers analyzed data from surveys conducted between April and July 2021 that examined the traits, behaviors and beliefs of more than 15,000 adults across the United States.
  • About 30% of respondents reported experiencing moderate or more severe depressive symptoms.
  • About 20% endorsed at least one misinformation statement related to COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Respondents who endorsed at least one misrepresentation regarding COVID-19 were half as likely to be vaccinated.

In 2018, Dictionary.com named “misinformation” — a noun referring to false information that people and organizations spread, whether or not they intended to mislead — its word of the year.

The word certainly came in handy two years later. Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation has been rampant. False and misleading information about everything from the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines to treatments for the disease has spread like wildfire on the internet, often with deadly consequences.

In April 2020, for example, Aljazeera reported that more than 700 people died in Iran after ingesting toxic methanol because they believed it could cure COVID-19.

A new to study aimed to see if there was a link between depressive symptoms and receptivity to misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.

The researchers behind this study published in Open JAMA Network began by exploring whether individual characteristics — more complex than simple demographic factors or party affiliation — might be associated with greater susceptibility to misinformation.

The researchers pointed to a 2019 study that suggests people with depressive symptoms often display a greater negativity bias, meaning they pay more attention to largely negative information.

Dr. Roy Perlis, lead author of the new study, associate chief of research in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and director of the hospital’s Center for Quantitative Health, said this was the original point of the study.

“One of the notable things about depression is that it can cause people to see the world differently – a bit the opposite of rose-colored glasses. In other words, for some depressed people, the world appears like a place particularly dark and dangerous.

– Dr. Roy Perlis

“We wondered if people who see the world this way might also be more likely to believe misinformation about vaccines. If you already think the world is a dangerous place, you might be more inclined to believe vaccines are dangerous — even if they’re not,” he says.

For this study, researchers examined data from a survey of more than 15,000 adults from all 50 states between April and May 2021 and June and July 2021. They measured participants’ depressive symptoms using the Patient Health in Nine Points (PHQ-9).

The researchers presented participants with misinformed statements that were prevalent on social media platforms in the spring of 2021 and asked participants to label them as “accurate”, “inaccurate” or “uncertain”.

These misrepresentations were:

  • COVID-19 vaccines will alter people’s DNA.
  • COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips that could track people.
  • COVID-19 vaccines contain lung tissue from aborted fetuses.
  • COVID-19 vaccines can cause infertility, making it harder to get pregnant.

After collecting their responses, the researchers informed the participants that the statements were not true to ensure that the survey was not spreading false information.

They asked participants about their top sources of information, which included Fox News resources, infographics and government documents. The researchers also asked socio-demographic questions, asking participants to share their race, ethnicity and gender and rate their ideology on a scale ranging from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative.”

The majority of participants were female (63.6%) and white (76.7%).

The researchers noted whether survey participants had received a COVID-19 vaccine. Participants who had not received a vaccine indicated whether they would receive one “as soon as possible”, “after some people I know”, “after most people I know” or said: “I don’t would not receive the COVID-19 vaccine. ”

As part of the study, researchers also analyzed data received from a subset of nearly 3,000 respondents who completed an additional survey two months later.

Nearly 30% of respondents had moderate or greater depressive symptoms, according to the PHQ-9. About 20% of respondents endorsed at least one of the four vaccine-related misinformation statements.

Respondents who endorsed at least one misinformed statement were half as likely to have received a COVID-19 vaccine.

Respondents reporting depressive symptoms in the first survey were twice as likely as those who did not report depressive symptoms to endorse more misinformed statements in the second survey than in the first.

The researchers point out that the study design does not allow them to address causality.

“While we cannot conclude that depression caused this susceptibility, examination of a second wave of data at least told us that depression occurred before the misinformation. Simply put, it wasn’t that misinformation made people more depressed,” Perlis said in a press release.

Dr. Kate Maddalena, assistant professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga in Ontario, said Medical News Today that the study serves as a reminder that society needs to do a better job of diagnosing and treating people with major depressive disorder.

That said, she warned that even if someone were to develop an intervention that could tackle the Herculean task of reducing depression in the population, the complicated problem of misinformation would likely continue to plague society.

She said many other factors such as an individual’s socio-economic status and political affinity also play a role in a person’s vulnerability to believing false information.

Dr. Maddalena called the reduction in depression a “positive drop in [a] big bucket of factors that contribute to misinformation susceptibility.

Dr. Robert Trestman, senior vice president and director of psychiatry at the Carilion Clinic in Virginia, agreed that the fight against misinformation has many fronts.

“Especially now, in our current culture, a lot of misinformation isn’t just fact — it’s a whole fabric,” he said. DTM.

“[F]For many, it’s almost religious in the intensity of the belief structure, and questioning those beliefs is — in some ways — almost like questioning someone’s religion. [U]until we can help further align society to support the need for honesty and accuracy in what we report, recognizing that we may be uncertain but we do our best to share accurate information, […] it’s not going to change,” he said.

According to Trestman, this belief structure and culture of misinformation is why “2,000 Americans died yesterday from COVID-related illnesses, and the vast majority of those people were unvaccinated.”

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