Research on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown an increase in depressive symptoms and anxiety. The pandemic has also spurred heavy discussion on social media platforms which has given rise to the prevalence of COVID-19 related conspiracy beliefs. New research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that belief in general and COVID-19 specific conspiracy theories may be associated with increased depressive and anxiety symptoms.
“Among the conspiracy theories prevalent were those suggesting that the virus was produced in a laboratory or to reduce the world’s population by reducing the number of elderly people,” explained study author Paweł Dębski and colleagues. “There were also local conspiracy narratives about governments withholding information about the true extent of the pandemic and restricting number of infected people in the spring of 2020 in order, for example, to hold elections.”
“The belief in conspiracy theories related to the course, treatment and origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has become a significant health risk, linked to COVID-19 prophylaxis, through which a detailed list of pandemic myths has also been provided by the World Health Organization (WHO).”
The aim of the current study was to assess the relationship between COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs, general conspiracy beliefs, and anxiety and depressive symptoms in a Polish sample. The researchers recruited a final sample of 585 adult Polish people via social media to complete the study online. Participants completed measures of general conspiracy beliefs, anxiety and depression symptoms, and COVID-19 specific conspiratorial beliefs.
Results show that general and COVID-19 specific conspiracy beliefs were positively associated. Both types of conspiracy beliefs were also positively associated with the severity of the anxiety and depressive symptoms reported by participants. Further analyses suggest that an increased tendency to believe false information about the COVID-19 pandemic may be associated with the increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms.
There were some differences observed between participants in different locations throughout Poland. Specifically, participants living in rural areas reported stronger belief in COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs than those living in a large city.
“The strong association of COVID-19 CBS with belief in general conspiracy theories is not surprising. Indeed, it seems obvious that people who are inclined to accept and develop conspiracy theories on a variety of issues will be more likely to believe in false conspiracy theories related to the pandemic. The belief in control of information, which means the belief that the flow of information is unethically controlled by various global organisations, seems to play a particular role here,” concluded the researchers.
“The uncertainty associated with the pandemic may have contributed to the belief that public institutions provide citizens with only the information they need to create human behaviour in times of pandemic.”
The authors mention limitations to this work including the use of social media recruitment and the reliance on correlational data for these claims. In other words, since these data are correlational we cannot say which of these variables is causing the others. For example, we cannot say that belief in conspiracy theories causes people to have more anxiety or depressive symptoms, or vice versa.
The study, “Conspiratorial Beliefs About COVID-19 Pandemic – Can They Pose a Mental Health Risk? The Relationship Between Conspiracy Thinking and the Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression Among Adult Poles“, was authored by Paweł Dȩbski, Adrianna Boroń, Natalia Kapuśniak, Małgorzata Dȩbska-Janus, Magdalena Piegza, and Piotr Gorczyca.