Misinformation, mental well-being and third wave

The phenomenon of health misinformation can be as bad as the pandemic and if unchecked, can snowball and impact millions of people.

Published: 15th January 2022 01:22 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th January 2022 01:22 AM   |  A+A-

COVID Misinformation

For representational purposes (Soumyadip Sinha | Express Illustrations)

While Covid-19 is not the first pandemic the world has known, it exists in the age of technological and information explosion. The past two years, the world and especially India have witnessed disruptions in healthcare, education, economics and in life as we knew it.

We also witnessed the upsurge of messages received on family groups and social media about the Chinese virus, home-made remedies that could prevent and ‘cure’ Covid, apocalyptic predictions of millions of people dying and other conspiracy theories. Catalysed by such misinformation, the ripple effects of the pandemic’s disruption have had a colossal impact on every aspect of human life, especially on the already brimming invisible crisis of mental health.

Owing to the information overload and a lack of concerted crisis communication, an infodemic has also been brewing all over the world alongside the pandemic, with the spillover and magnitude equivalent to the virus itself. While not everyone has been particularly affected by the virus, the uncertainty of the pandemic led to widespread misinformation that in turn reached every nook and corner of the country.

With the onset of the pandemic, the visible cloud of panic and uncertainty translated into invisible mental health issues. In fact, the pandemic disrupted and triggered psychosocial stressors through increased cases of domestic violence, fragmented family and social relationships, increased dependence on alcohol, substance abuse and technology addiction, among other things. The added layer of misinformation has only further fuelled the psychological and mental health crisis.

Further, the media, especially the vernacular ones, reported specific bits and pieces of scientific developments in isolation or without context that were misleading in nature. This in turn caused large-scale mistrust, vaccine hesitancy and other ripple effects including panic and anxiety among the population. Even in the current context of Omicron, social media has once again pushed the panic button.

A widely circulated post on social media claims that Omicron is deadlier than all the other variants and that it cannot be detected through RT-PCR tests. A parallel narrative on the other hand claims that Omicron is very mild, rather an equivalent of common cold, which is again quite misleading and in fact dangerous given that less than 50% of the country’s population is fully vaccinated. This is similar to the distorted and misleading reportage that led to confusion in the last two years and it seems that we are back to square one, having not learnt lessons from our past.

While the phenomenon of health misinformation is not novel, it is a rather complex subject that, if unchecked, can snowball and severely impact millions of people, leading to a public health crisis. It is in fact pertinent to discuss the repercussions of misinformation on mental health, a crisis that was brimming even before the pandemic.

There are two types of mental health misinformation. The first is false news that triggers mental health issues; for instance, Covid misinformation has not only affected mental well-being but has caused real-time and large-scale paranoia and anxiety across the world.

Secondly, the existing misinformation (stigma, myths and misconceptions) in the mental health space that led to undiagnosed illnesses, which in turn resulted in substance abuse and addiction, among other things, directly affecting public health. 

While the world health authorities have prescribed overview, symptoms and precautions for the pandemic, similar caution and guidance have been missing for the infodemic. The disrupting effect of the infodemic on mental health is as much a concern as the pandemic and requires immediate attention. Just as it is important to wear masks and maintain physical distancing for the virus, it is necessary to practise ‘digital distancing’ and fact-checking in the context of the infodemic. This includes responsible reporting and consumption of news and anything read on social media. Given the information overload, limited attention spans and algorithms based on cognitive biases, it is easy to fall prey to misinformation.

However, the good news is that there is an antidote to this, but it requires effort from the readers/consumers. While there is no definite method to tackle the misinformation crisis, the first rational step is to practice ‘digital distancing’—every piece of information must be taken with a pinch of salt, i.e. it is important to pay attention to the obvious, outrageous and glaringly bizarre headlines.

Practice digital hygiene, which includes understanding some context; pause, think and ask questions before consuming and especially sharing information. Staying informed is good but consuming every bit of Covid statistics available online may not be necessary (especially before sleep).

It is important to remember that science is a self-correcting mechanism and there are no absolute black-and-white areas. All it takes is a senseless forward to the wrong hands to generate panic and chaos on social media platforms.

Therefore, two years into the pandemic, while information/literature continues to grow, ideally no piece of data should disrupt or throw the reader off balance. In this regard, it is therefore pertinent to inculcate fact-checking as an essential life skill to shield oneself from all kinds of fake news and seek right information from authentic sources (ex: WHO, CDC, ICMR, etc.).

The role of fact checkers, especially in the field of medical news owing to the ongoing pandemic, cannot be overemphasised. As someone aptly said, it is not the pandemic of the unvaccinated but the endemic of the misinformed.

Nanditha Kalidoss 

FACTLY Health Fellow

Dr Debanjan Banerjee 

Consultant Geriatric Psychiatrist, Kolkata



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