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Google databases uncover seasonal mental illness trends

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Mental health research gets a boost from Google databases.

Researchers might get a boost tracking mental health issues from Google search trends. A recent report suggests mental health issues seem to follow a seasonal pattern that could better help scientists tap into population mental health issues.

Google search a better tool for tracking mental health

The finding that comes from John W. Ayers, PhD, MA, of the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University and colleagues found disorders that included ADHD or attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, bipolar, depression, anorexia and bulimia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, and suicide are more widely searched on the internet during winter months compared to summer.

The researchers monitored mental health trends in the U.S. and Australia from 2006 to 2010.

Unlike telephone surveys searching Google databases for mental health searches could provide a more accurate way to understand when mental health issues are more prevalent. The study authors say a pitfall of surveying people is accuracy in reporting symptoms.
Searching the internet is also a less expensive way to track mental health.

Ayers said in a press release: "By passively monitoring how individuals search online we can figuratively look inside the heads of searchers to understand population mental health patterns."

The study had a surprise finding. All mental health issue searches were more prevalent in the winter; not just SAD or seasonal affective disorder that is well known to affect mood and well-being.

James Niels Rosenquist, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital said the results were “unexpected” and consistent for every specific mental illness searched.

Key findings from the research include:

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• Suicide searches declined from 29 to 24 percent during the summer in the U.S. and Australia

• Bipolar disorder was searched 16 and 17 percent less in the United States and the Australia respectively.

• Google queries for ADHD decreased by 28 percent in the U.S. and 31 percent in Australia during summertime.

• Fewer OCD or obsessive compulsive disorder internet searches occurred in both countries in the summer.

It will be years before the finding might have some practical application though, Rosenquist says pondering possibilities is exciting because it could mean “… the potential for a universal mental health emollient, like Vitamin D” metabolized from sun exposure.

Researchers may now have a new and unexpected tool to track mental health issues by using Google search databases. The internet can help scientists understand whether social, environmental or biological mechanisms are linked to the seasonal patterns of serious mental illnesses found in the study.

Benjamin Althousedxsexs, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who participated in the research, suggests the possibilities are “limitless” and can be done daily and inexpensively. For instance, tracking daily mental health searches on Google might uncover a “Monday Effect” or other information that facilitate mental health treatments and interventions.

American Journal of Preventive Medicine
April 9, 2013

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