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Can Misinformation Impact Mental Health Issues?

Khadija Boufous Khadija Boufous
9th October 2022
Can Misinformation Impact Mental Health Issues?
Misinformation about health care can lead to emotional distress (Getty)

Every year on October 10, nations around the globe commemorate World Mental Health Day. 

For this special occasion, the World Health Organization and its partners launched a campaign with the slogan "Making Mental Health & Well-Being for All a Global Priority."

The campaign will give people with mental health conditions, advocates, governments, and other interested parties a chance to talk about needs, challenges, and future steps to ensure mental health and well-being.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has previously demonstrated that people exposed to unverified and false online content, particularly on social media platforms, can suffer harm. 

Although it did not prove how believing in fake content causes mental health issues, a study published in Frontiers explained how people who believe in pandemic misinformation are more likely to experience anxiety and depression symptoms.

Inaccurate Health Information Can Cause Depression and Anxiety

The researchers used two questionnaires to track correlations between false information beliefs and mental health conditions. According to the study, common misconceptions about the pandemic include claims that governments exaggerated the number of COVID-19 deaths and that wearing face masks causes carbon dioxide poisoning. Misbar has previously addressed both claims.

The researchers discovered that depression was strongly associated with belief in false content related to the pandemic, whereas anxiety was only moderately associated.

According to the World Health Organization, inaccurate interpretations of health information can have a negative impact on people's mental health during outbreaks and disasters.

Other studies have found that social media users are more likely to be misled because these platforms are critical sources for the rapid and widespread dissemination of information. 

According to a new WHO review, "the consequences of misinformation on social media include such negative effects as an increase in erroneous interpretation of scientific knowledge, opinion polarization, escalating fear and panic, or decreased access to health care."

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During pandemics, health emergencies, and humanitarian crises, people may experience mental, social, political, or economic distress as a result of misleading and false health-related content on social media.

Although several reviews found that several social media platforms significantly improved knowledge and awareness, many people are still suffering as a result of the false and incorrect information they received during the first few months of the lockdown.

Another study, available on Nature Portfolio, shows that people who spread misinformation not only worsen the situation by contributing to the spread of "Fake News," as is widely known but are also victims of the anxiety that results.

Misinformation Regarding COVID-19 Impacted Mental Health

Misinformation has an impact on mental health and balance, according to Faiçal Tahari, a Moroccan psychologist, and psychotherapist. This is especially true when an incorrect story goes viral on social media and gains others' trust and belief.

According to Mr. Tahari, in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, 'Fake News' destabilized individuals' psychological stability and increased tensions.

A social media user may experience panic attacks or acute anxiety as a result of their fear of such news, particularly when it comes to health security, food security, or human safety, where a fake story about a gang can cause intense fear, according to the expert.

“People went on battles after many social media users circulated news alleging many goods were insufficient, and funding sources would completely stop during the COVID-19 lockdown. The situation caused a wave of panic.”

On a psychological level, the misinformation impact differs and depends on psychological structures. However, people with poor psychological health may fall prey to “Fake News” and be easy targets. Their unstable situation can contribute to an internal psychological storm turning the “normal fear” into morbid fear and panic after receiving misinformation, Mr. Tahari told us.

Misinformation promotion has become an easy mission. Social media platforms became malicious tools, attracting more visitors to interact with misleading but “attractive false headlines.”

“We witnessed online news channels and websites promoting unverified news. This situation shows that false information in the right place and time can spread very widely.” Misinformation can cause harm and psychological trauma, especially “if a person lives in a state of panic and tension,” the psychologist told us.

The psychologist added: “Looking for accurate information is crucial. Fighting misinformation depends on educating people about the need for verification. Citizens should keep in mind the verification techniques and restrict every post to sources in addition to giving links to official sources.”

“Taking cautions when it comes to posting content or receiving and believing stories circulating online contributes to achieving our psychological stability and others’ safety,” the expert concluded.

Misbar Reported on Mental Health Related Issues

A previous Misbar blog has reported on a recent study proving that half of the most popular TikTok videos about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are misleading. The research has classified the top 100 most popular videos about ADHD uploaded by TikTok video creators as misleading, useful, or personal experiences. According to the report, 52% of the 100 TikTok videos were classified as misleading, 27% as personal experience or anecdotal experience of ADHD symptoms or treatment, and 21% as useful, containing scientifically accurate information about ADHD.

A previous study of ADHD-related YouTube videos found that 38% of the content was false and only 5% of the videos were helpful. The study cautioned that the false information in this content "has the potential to contribute to anxiety or lead to increased healthcare utilization."

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Misbar has also addressed claims related to mental health, including out-of-date information attributed to WHO about a quarter of the world's population suffering from mental disorders. Our team verified the allegations and found some to be outdated. However, a report from 2001 stated that a quarter of the world's population would suffer from a mental disorder. As mentioned in another WHO report, the same information was focused on a specific region, the Eastern Mediterranean.

Furthermore, the World Health Organization reported on June 17, 2022, that nearly one billion people worldwide, 14 percent of whom were adolescents, had some form of mental disorder in 2019.

Accurate Information is Required for Mental Health Stability

A study we mentioned above suggests that believing in misinformation and conspiracies appeal to people whose key psychological needs are unmet. For instance, people who feel powerless in their lives may think of misinformation as a way to control their beliefs.

“We think belief in false information contributes to a weakened sense of security, causing the development of anxiety and depression,” the study's lead researcher, Pawel Debski, told DW.

However, stable and solid mental health requires that facts be maintained. Access to accurate information has become one of the most important digital rights, alongside using this content and creating and publishing it in a way that respects the cyber rights of others. According to experts, accurate health-related information should be provided by specialists and scientists rather than users in similar situations.

Giving precise information reveals and exposes the truth. Meanwhile, misinformation can sometimes sell the illusion of a perfect world while also worsening mental health issues if fact-based information eventually appears.

To summarize, directing appropriate resources to vulnerable groups, including people with mental health issues, can aid in mitigating the negative effects of misinformation.

Misbar’s Sources

World Health Organization
World Health Organization 
Penn Medicine News
National Library of Medicine
Korea Science
BMC Research Notes

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