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MGH study links depression and susceptibility to COVID vaccine misinformation

“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.”

Folks who experience depression may be more receptive to misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine, a team of investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital recently found.

In a study published yesterday in JAMA Network Open, researchers surveyed 15,464 adults from across the country via two online questionnaires—the first covering depressive symptoms and the second involving COVID-19 vaccine statements. The surveys took place between May and July 2021.

The study found that folks who experience moderate or major depressive symptoms according to the first survey were 2.2 times more likely to endorse at least one of the four false statements about vaccines in the second survey. Those who endorsed such statements were also half as likely to be vaccinated. They were also 2.7 times more likely to report vaccine hesitancy.

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“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,” the study’s lead author Dr. Roy H. Perlis, associate chief of research in the Department of Psychiatry and director of the Center for Quantitative Health at MGH, said in a statement. “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.”

A subset of 2,809 of the study’s respondents answered a subsequent, similar survey two months later. Those with depression according to the first survey were twice as likely as those without depression to endorse even more misinformation in the second survey, demonstrating that the misinformation came after the depression. 

“That is, it wasn’t that misinformation was making people more depressed,” said Perlis.

The study’s investigators ruled out the possibility of different news sources affecting depression levels by including survey questions about social media use and news consumption. The study’s data also remained consistent across demographic groups and political alignments.

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The study’s results suggest that taking measures to decrease the high levels of depression countrywide, exacerbated by the pandemic, may also decrease the public’s susceptibility to misinformation. 

“Of course, we can only show an association—we can’t show that the depression causes the susceptibility,” said Perlis, “but it’s certainly suggestive that it might.”

Perlis emphasized that the study’s results don’t blame misinformation on folks with depression—they simply suggest that depression might make someone more vulnerable to believing misinformation.  

“While this study design cannot address causation,” read the study’s conclusion, “the association between depression and spread and impact of misinformation merits further investigation.”

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