Mental Illness Searches On Google Rise During Long-Lasting Winter Patterns
April 9, 2013

Mental Illness Searches On Google Rise During Long-Lasting Winter Patterns

Peter Suciu for — Your Universe Online

Even as spring has arrived on the calendar for much of the country this winter might seem almost unending. That is bad news for those suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs around the same time each year. It can sap the energy and make those with the disorder feel moody. It could also have more people heading to the computer to determine if they might be suffering from a mental illness as well.

According to a new study published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM), many people are turning to Google to search for information across all major mental illnesses as well as other problems that could be following seasonal patterns. This suggests that mental illness could be more strongly linked with seasonal patterns.

The study could be a game changer in determining mental illness trends, which have traditionally been a significant challenge for scientists and clinicians alike. In the past, telephone surveys were primarily used as a way to get into the minds of potential respondents. This approach had shortcomings, notably the fact that respondents may be reluctant to honestly discuss mental health.

The high costs of such surveys also limited the data that researchers and investigators were able to access. Google´s public database of queries has offered an alternative for researchers. This study, conducted by researchers from the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) at San Diego State University, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and the USC Keck School of Medicine, utilized the public database to identify and monitor mental health queries in the United States and Australia for 2006 to 2010.

This study looked at all queries relating to mental health, which were captured and grouped by the type of mental illness. These included ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder), anxiety, bipolar, depression, eating disorders (including anorexia or bulimia), OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), schizophrenia, and suicide. The researchers relied on advanced mathematical methods to identify the trends.

As a result the authors reportedly found that mental health queries in both countries were significantly and, more importantly, consistently higher in the winter months as opposed to the summer.

“The Internet is a game changer,” lead investigator John W. Ayers, PhD, MA, of the GSPH, said in a statement. “By passively monitoring how individuals search online we can figuratively look inside the heads of searchers to understand population mental health patterns.”

From the research the investigators were able to see that many Google searches for mental illness declined in the summer. The study found that eating disorders declined by 37 percent in summer months in the United States, and 42 percent in the summer months in Australia; while schizophrenia declined by 37 percent in the US and 36 percent in Australia.

Bipolar searches were down 16 and 17 percent respectively in the US and Australia in summer months, while ADHD searches dropped by 28 and 31 respectively, OCD was down 18 and 15 percent and suicide dropped by 24 and 29 percent respectively. Anxiety searches reportedly had the smallest seasonal change, and saw just a seven percent decline in the US during the summer, while still dropping 15 percent during Australian summers.

Even the researchers were surprised to find the connections between the seasons and major mental illness, but knowing the problem is still often considered the first step to treatment.

“Our findings can help researchers across the field of mental health generate additional new hypotheses while exploring other trends inexpensively in real-time,” said Benjamin Althouse, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) and researcher on the study. “For instance, moving forward, we can explore daily patterns in mental health information seeking “¦ maybe even finding a ℠Monday effect.´ The potential is limitless.”