The research team found that levels of depression are at least 3 times higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
People who experience depressive symptoms may be more receptive to misinformation related to COVID-19 vaccines because of an unconscious bias toward negative information over positive information, according to a study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“One of the notable things about depression is that it can cause people to see the world differently—sort of the opposite of rose-colored glasses. That is, for some depressed people, the world appears as a particularly dark and dangerous place,” said lead author Roy H. Perlis, MD, MSc, in a press release. “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.”
Perlis and colleagues examined responses from 15,464 adults from all 50 US states and Washington, DC, who completed an internet survey between May and July 2021 that included statements related to COVID-19 vaccines after answering a questionnaire that measured depressive symptoms.
The research team found that levels of depression are at least 3 times higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants with moderate or greater major depressive symptoms on the initial questionnaire were more likely to endorse at least 1 of 4 false statements about COVID-19 vaccines on the survey, and those who recognized these statements were less likely to be vaccinated, the results showed.
Further, the presence of depression was associated with a 2.2 times higher likelihood of endorsing misinformation. The respondents endorsing at least 1 misinformation statement were half as likely to be vaccinated and 2.7 times more likely to report vaccine resistance, according to the survey.
The team analyzed data from a subset of 2809 respondents who answered a subsequent survey 2 months later. Those who suffered with depression in the first survey were twice as likely as those without depression to endorse more misinformation than they did in the prior survey.
“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. That is, it wasn’t that misinformation was making people more depressed,” Perlis said in the press release.
The research team noted that the findings provide an additional motivation to ensure that people have access to treatment for depression and anxiety.
“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,” Perlis said in the press release. “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.”
Perlis emphasized that the results do not aim to target misinformation on people with depression, but rather suggest that depression may cause people to be more vulnerable to believing this misinformation.