Google Trends Correlates Seasons With Mental Health Disorders

By Pierre Dumont , Apr 09, 2013 03:36 PM EDT

Google searches for mental health disorders reach their peak in winter, according to a new study, suggesting that seasons have a larger effect on mental disorders than previously believed.

The study was conducted by researchers at San Diego State University, who used Google Trends to compile a list of searches. They found that between 2006 and 2010, searches for mental disorders in Australia and the U.S. increased dramatically during the winter.

The results of the study indicate the existence of a number of currently unused approaches to treating mental illness, and also suggest that public data collection could be crucial in discovering these trends.

"We have the potential to rapidly assess population health by passively gathering data from search queries," San Diego professor and coauthor John W. Ayers told the San Diego Union Tribune. "We're able to see, what no other data elicited, that there is potential for seasonality in a host of mental health problems ... Here is a way that we can actually look inside the heads of people searching online, and we can use that to infer how there's population fluctuation in illness across the seasons."

The results of the Google trends study indicated that searches for OCD went down an average of 18 percent in the U.S. and 15 percent in Australia during the summer. ADHD searches went down 28 percent in the U.S. and 31 percent in Australia; bipolar searches went down 16 percent and 17 percent; suicide went down 24 percent and 29 percent; anxiety went down seven percent and 15 percent, eating disorders went down 37 percent and 42 percent and schizophrenia went down 37 percent and 36 percent.

The accuracy of the finding is clouded by the fact that no personal context was given for the searches. Therefore, it is unknown if the searchers were looking up the terms for personal or academic purposes.

The researchers hope to take the study to the next level by dividing the trend by city, giving them a more accurate assessment of weather conditions.

"It is very exciting to ponder the potential for a universal mental health emollient, like Vitamin D (a metabolite of sun exposure)," Ayers said. "But it will be years before our findings are linked to serious mental illness and then linked to mechanisms that may be included in treatment and prevention programs. Is it biologic, environmental, or social mechanisms explaining universal patterns in mental health information seeking? We don't know."

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