Belief in false information is a mental health problem | Science | In-depth science and technology reporting | DW

A study found that people who believed false information about the COVID-19 pandemic were more likely to suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“Our study shows the potential negative impact of false beliefs about COVID-19 on mental health,” said the study’s lead researcher Pavel Dembski.

But the study does not show that symptoms of depression and anxiety directly drive belief in false information. Nor does it explain how believing false information can lead to mental health problems.

False information is depressing

Using two online questionnaires—the COVID-19 Conspiracy Belief Scale and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale—the researchers looked for correlations between false beliefs and mental states.

They say they found that common misconceptions about COVID include that governments are exaggerating the number of COVID-19 deaths, that 5G spreads COVID-19, and that wearing a mask causes oxygen deprivation and carbon dioxide poisoning.

And them say they also found that depression was strongly associated with believing misinformation about COVID, while anxiety was more moderately associated.

Tthe study suggests high correlations between belief in misinformation about COVID and belief in broader conspiracy theories.

The pandemic has hit mental health hard

eXperts described the pandemic as highlighting a mental health crisis.

The World Health Organization reports that mental health problems have increased worldwide due to COVID and restrictions put in place to contain the pandemic, such as lockdowns.

Depression and anxiety have risen by 25% in the first year of the pandemic, with young people and women showing the sharpest rise in symptoms.

There was social isolation, concern for one’s own health and that of loved ones it is said to be among the biggest stressors. Key workers such as health professionals also cite burnout as affecting their mental health.

Research by the UK-based mental health charity Mind assumes that those who struggled with their mental health prior to COVID-19 were most affected by restrictions and blockages.

Is social media to blame for COVID fake news?

More than half of Europeans believe they were exposed to misinformation online, according to a report published by the European Commission.

The pandemic has led to all-time high levels of online and social media use, according to research by Statista, and a study in the journal Science suggests that misinformation is reaching more people than factual information on social media.

This is a phenomenon that psychologists call “negativity bias.” This happens when people focus on what is potentially harmful rather than what is helpful.

And the theory is that focusing on negative information worsens depressive symptoms and that this in turn leads to greater belief in false information.

Better mental health support necessary to keep things real

The study suggests that belief in conspiracy theories is attractiveof people whose key psychological needs are unmet, such as a sense of control over their lives. For example, people who feel powerless in their lives may use false information as a way to control what they believe.

“We believe that belief in false information contributes to a weakened sense of security, which leads to the development of anxiety and depression,” Dembski said.

But mMental health charity Mind says supporting people with reliable information about mental health itself would help.

We encounter many misconceptions about mental health every day in the media and online,” Mind’s said Stephen Buckley. “Tackling negative attitudes is key to reducing stigma, which can help address social isolation and potential susceptibility to fake news.

So, ssupporting people with mental health problems can also help them build confidence in factual information.

And that may be especially true, Buckley says, for people of black and minority ethnic origin or people living in poverty who are “nearly twice as likely to use online communities to get information about their mental health. It is essential that we ensure these spaces are safe, trustworthy and respectful.

Editing: Zulfikar Abani

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