People who are susceptible to conspiracy theories are more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety, a study published on Tuesday has found.
Scientists have created a Covid-19 conspiratorial beliefs scale to gauge susceptibility to conspiracy theories, which was presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry.
So far it has not been established that conspiratorial belief causes depression, or if people prone to depression are more likely to believe in conspiracies.
In major European counties, including the UK, polls show between 30 and 40 per cent of people believe that governments used the pandemic to control citizens, or to hide any harmful effects of vaccines.
“These polls show that tens of millions of people are open to belief in some level of conspiracy as a result of the Covid epidemic”, said lead researcher Dr Paweł Dębski.
“Our work now shows for the first time that these people are more at risk of more serious anxiety or depression symptoms than the rest of the population. And as the World Health Organisation has indicated, false beliefs may also put the rest of the population at risk”.
Germany, France and Italy also have significant numbers of people who believe in conspiracies. In the US, about 25 per cent believe that the pandemic was “intentionally planned by powerful people”.
“We see that the severity of anxiety can be increased in those who express a belief in conspiracy theories,” said Dr Debski, from Poland’s Medical University of Silesia in Katowice.
“However there is a very significant increase in the severity of depression symptoms.
“At this stage, we are unable to say whether a belief in conspiracy theories cause more anxiety and depression, or whether people who are more anxious and depressed are more attracted to these theories”.
To build the new Covid conspiracy scale, the research group from several Polish Universities recruited nearly 700 volunteers and asked them about their beliefs.
Researchers also used other data to bring in a wider picture of global conspiracies, including alien cover-ups and secret societies.
Dr Dębski said: “This is a fast moving field. Covid has only struck us in the last couple of years, and developing the tools to evaluate the mental health effects takes time.”
Commenting on the study, Prof Umberto Volpe, chairman of the European Psychiatric Association section on Digital Psychiatry, said the “infodemic” that proliferated on social media may have been harmful.
“Conspiracy theories and misinformation during infectious outbreaks are nothing new, as they have always proliferated in the history of human epidemics,” he said.
“However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the exponential growth of digitalisation and social media has made new ‘virtual spaces’ available.
“Social media have been important in compensating for the lack of personal contact, but the wider use of digital media may also have helped spread misinformation more rapidly, and to amplify harmful messages.
“This ‘Infodemic’ may be generally stressful, as well as causing people to doubt public health messages, but, as this study highlights, it may pose also an additional mental health risk for those who are more prone to false beliefs.”