COVID-19 has had a profound effect on people. The world is approaching one million recorded deaths from the disease. And, some of those who recovered from the initial virus effects continue to suffer long-term symptoms that are yet to be fully understood.
Once the knock-on effects of the disease factor in — for example, overwhelmed critical care units prolonging treatment times for people with other serious illnesses — then it is clear that the pandemic has had a devastating effect on people’s health around the world.
However, as well as people’s physical health, it is also becoming clear that the pandemic is significantly affecting their mental health.
Early in the pandemic, there were anecdotal reports that people’s mental health was worsening, including those with pre-existing mental health issues and those whose mental health was normally well. As time has gone on, more research has started to corroborate these reports.
In the present study, the researchers wanted to explore an alternative way of determining the pandemic’s effects on mental health: analyzing Google search requests.
Google Trends allows anyone to see the search terms that people use for various populations, globally and locally. As Dr. Michael Hoerger, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Tulane University Cancer Center, New Orleans, and his co-authors note:
“Although by no means a ‘window into the soul,’ people’s search terms reflect relatively uncensored desires for information and thus lack many of the biases of traditional self-report surveys.”
Previous health science research has made use of Google Trends data in studies, and the present study’s investigators wanted to see how effective it could be in the context of mental health in the current pandemic.
To do this, they accessed weekly U.S. search terms from April 21, 2019 to April 21, 2020.
By comparing the pre- and post-pandemic search terms, the researchers were able to identify four relevant themes.
Firstly, following the announcement of the pandemic, search terms related to ‘worry’ increased significantly. These terms included ‘worry,’ ‘worry health,’ ‘panic,’ and ‘hysteria.’
Secondly, people shifted to searching for anxiety symptoms, which spiked after the initial flurry of worry-related search terms.
Thirdly, the researchers did not see a significant increase in other mental health search terms, such as depression, loneliness, suicidal ideation, or substance abuse.
Rather than interpreting this to suggest that these issues did not increase, the authors speculate that people’s searches relating to these issues may occur later, or that they may be better at utilizing self-care techniques concerning these.
Finally, the researchers noticed that not only did people understandably search for more online therapy rather than face-to-face therapy, they also searched for therapy techniques for dealing with anxiety symptoms.
Users did so with search terms such as ‘deep breathing’ and ‘body scan meditation.’
For Dr. Hoerger, “[o]ur analyses from shortly after the pandemic declaration are the tip of the iceberg.”
“Over time, we should begin to see a greater decline in societal mental health. This will likely include more depression, PTSD, community violence, suicide, and complex bereavement. For each person that dies of COVID, approximately nine close family members are affected, and people will carry that grief for a long time.”
– Dr. Michael Hoerger
The researchers suggest that by continuing to track Google Trends data, public health bodies may be able to better identify people’s mental health needs promptly, reducing the pandemic’s psychological effects.