Googling Seasonal Mental Health

Mental health Google searches peak in winter months

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Can the seasons have an effect on mental health? In some people, seasonal affective disorder and depressive symptoms worsen during winter months. But a new study shows that the weather may impact more than a handful of mental health conditions.

The study found that Google searches for a variety of major mental health issues were significantly higher during the winter months in both the United States and Australia.

The authors wrote that the patterns found in Google searches for other mental illnesses followed seasonal patterns similar to the patterns associated with seasonal affective disorder.

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Researchers, led by John W. Ayers, PhD, MA, of the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University, analyzed Google’s public database of search queries in both the United States and Australia from the years 2006 to 2010.

Searches relating to mental health were categorized into types of condition. For example, searches for “OCD symptoms”, “OCD test” and “medications for OCD” would all be categorized together as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) queries. 

A large number of additional conditions were examined, including attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia and suicide.

In analyzing the data, the researchers found that numbers of all types of mental health searches were higher in the winter than in the summer, in both the US and Australia, throughout all four years of the study. 

Overall, mental health queries were found to be 14 percent and 11 percent higher in the winter than the summer in US and Australia, respectively.

The trend also held true when looking at individual mental health topics. Searches for eating disorders (which included both anorexia and bulimia) were 37 percent lower in the US during the summers as compared to the winters, and 42 percent lower in Australia during the summers as compared to the winters. 

Likewise, US searches for schizophrenia dropped 37 percent in the summers and Australian schizophrenia searches dropped 36 percent in the summers. During American summers, searches for ADHD went down 28 percent, and during Australian summers these searches went down 31 percent.

Summertime queries related to suicide decreased 24 percent and 29 percent in the US and Australia, respectively. During the summers, bipolar disorder queries also dropped 16 percent in the US and 17 percent in Australia.

And as compared to the winters in each of the countries, OCD searches dropped 18 percent in the US during the summers and 15 percent in Australia during the summers. 

The smallest seasonal changes found in both countries were for anxiety searches. These searches declined 7 percent during American summers and 15 percent during Australian summers.

The authors also explained that telephone surveys are usually used to conduct research such as this, but factors like stigma and respondents’ reluctance to discuss mental health issues may affect the results.

This study did not explain why the different searches may exist, but simply that they do exist. And the study had its limitations, including a lack of demographic information available on the searchers themselves.

However, the authors noted, “The Internet is a stigma- and cost-reducing venue to help screen and treat those who search for but may not bring problems to the attention of their clinicians. Internet-based treatment programs show promise; however, many search engine results are of questionable quality.”

The study was published by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. Some funding for this study was received from Google.org and from the National Science Foundation.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 9, 2013
Last Updated:
April 11, 2013