October 15, 2014

Rumors in Personal Life

Author Picture

Andrei Novac, MD

University of California, Irvine


In a recent article in The Primary Care Companion, my colleagues and I discussed the potentially toxic impact of rumors on the internal functioning of a psychiatric department. However, rumors also have the potential of heavily impacting people’s lives, which carries clinical significance for the practicing psychiatrist.

I have encountered clinical situations with patients who were seeking help for trauma resulting from rumors propagated via electronic media. One characteristic of this particular way of spreading rumors is the fact that, due to the anonymous nature of the Internet, these rumors tend to generate in victims a sense of severe helplessness and loss of control.

Case Vignette

Ms A was a 40-year-old, married executive secretary, with a long career in the corporate world. She found herself in the midst of a family dispute with her 4 siblings over their father’s large estate. Over the period of a year, a relatively close-knit family became involved in contentious litigation over their father’s estate. At that point, a barrage of anonymous, calumnious statements about Ms A appeared on the Internet: a criminal history including prostitution, theft, drug possession, and tax evasion, as well as a teenage pregnancy and abortion. None of these allegations had any basis in truth, and thus Ms A confidently dismissed and ignored them. However, as they were posted on the Internet in association with her correct name and identity, they became part of the information readily retrievable to anyone typing her name into a search engine. What followed seemed surreal for Ms A. As she related in session, her world gradually became shattered over a period of 6 to 8 months. People at work started making innuendos. Then, her supervisor called her in to discuss the claims found on the Internet, apparently having been notified by coworkers. There were concerns about the corporate image. In spite of the fact that Ms A denied all of the allegations, a cloud of doubt about her past continued. This was unjustified given the fact that criminal activities and personal histories can be confirmed and denied through background checks. Friends, acquaintances, and coworkers seemed to slip into a state of ambiguity, despite having no proof for any of these allegations. This ambiguity created distance between Ms A and her entire support system. In time, Ms A became isolated. Her employer did not take any action. The entire matter was treated with silence, which may have contributed to the rumor effect.

When Ms A first visited my office, she presented with symptoms of PTSD, eg, intrusive thoughts about the rumors and the related consequences, nightmares, guardedness, and heightened suspicion. She developed depression and a chronic sense of anhedonia about everyday life activities, work, and previously enjoyed leisure activities. Treatment with psychotherapy included a restructuring of her trauma-related suspicious cognitions. In addition, supportive and dynamic techniques were utilized to create a new forum of reality, away from the cloud of rumors in which she was now operating. It was particularly helpful to tap into the resource of a supportive marriage. Therefore, occasional conjoint sessions were scheduled. In addition, Ms A showed a positive response to treatment with SSRIs, which decreased the rumination and obsessive thinking. Treatment has been maintained long-term. Today, a year later, Ms A has persistent guardedness about coworkers and friends, but her nightmares and depression have remitted. She has not maintained contact with any of her siblings, as it was suspected that the younger brother had initiated the rumors.


The above case illustrates the malignancy of rumors propagated over the Internet. The ambiguous nature of rumors makes them a pathogen that can produce particularly prolonged effects. Thus, the combination of the power of Internet information and the human tendency to believe legends and rumors, when misused, will shatter people’s lives. The Internet provides no sure privacy safeguards. Treatment for patients in these situations has to be focused on rebuilding their confidence, addressing their faulty cognition that everyone privy to the rumors will believe them, and encouraging them to move to a different stage in life. There is certainly evil and insecurity in the world. However, one of the long-term goals of treatment should be to penetrate the defenses of posttraumatic thinking and re-expand our patients’ vision to internalize the experience of good and beauty.

As a final note, we often underestimate the value of long-term maintenance treatment in enhancing functionality after severe trauma, as opposed to the limited treatment needed to achieve remission in the case of an episodic psychiatric disorder. Most clinical studies, especially in psychopharmacology, are short-term, lasting only until first remission, and often we have no information about outcome 5 or 10 years later. For some patients, recurrence is the rule; for others, the exception. Treating patients with trauma sometimes requires stepping aside from the norms set by the many treatment studies with limited timeframes.

Financial disclosure:Dr Novac had no relevant personal financial relationships to report.

Category: Depression , PTSD
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4 thoughts on “Rumors in Personal Life

  1. Sadly a wonderful resource such as the Internet becomes an anonymous haven for cowards such as the alleged perpertator in Dr Novac’s case study.

    Much has been written here in Australia not only on Cyber Bullying via Social Media by school children but also with Domestc Violence. A friends daughter has been tracked down by her ex partner who created a false identity on a major ‘social’ [or should that read ANTI SOCIAL] web site, this enabled him to’friend’ her & track her activities.

    Pehpas there needs to be a concerted effort in enabling authorities to source and prosecute these cowards who trawl Social Media.

    Brian Jones, Senior Mental Health Social Worker, Sydney Australia

  2. Dr. Novac’s post higlights the importance of taking into account the “personal life” etiological factors in the diagnosis and therapeutic intervention in Psychiatry, as we are often so much centered exclusively in neurobiological ones.
    Thank you.
  3. smsarmiento raised a salient point, without a complete Multi disciplinary approach we’re only dealing with part of the presentations [symptoms].

    The broarder understanding of the individual as a whole from a systemic approach can provide a co-ordinated multi-facted range of options that can set a client on a more effective path to recovery.

    Thus utilising the skills of Social Work, Occupational Therapists, Psychologist e.t.c. enhances the work of Psychiatry.

  4. This situation has arisen due to the fact that un-confirmed data has been made available which can damage the life of inocent person.
    As a Psychiatrist one can handle these cases in the traditional way but cannot eliminate such acts from our society.
    This can be eliminated by the makers of search engines or software developers who can create such tools with which screenes only authentic data made available for the public and rest to be considered as spam.

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