Analyzing Google searches offers insight for better understanding mental illness

    We have all heard of SAD — Seasonal Affective Disorder — but could all mental illness have a seasonal aspect?

    A recent evaluation of Google searches suggests that people are more interested in researching mental illness in the winter.

    In their weekly conversation, WHYY’s behavioral health reporter Maiken Scott and Dan Gottlieb discuss this research.

    The study was led by a San Diego State University Public Health research professor, John W. Ayers, and will be published in the May issue of The American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

    Researchers identified and monitored mental health searches in the United States and Australia from 2006 through 2010, using Google’s public database of queries.They looked for searches involving key terms such as OCD, anxiety, bipolar, depression, anorexia and other eating disorders, schizophrenia – people looking for “symptoms of” or “treatment for.”

    According to their analysis, searches decreased significantly during the summer. Here are some examples of what they found according to a summary from San Diego State University:

    Eating disorder searches were down 37 percent in summers versus winters in the U.S.
    Schizophrenia searches decreased 37 percent during U.S. summers.
    Bipolar searches were down 16 percent.
    ADHD searches decreased by 28 percent.
    OCD searches were down 18 percent.

    These numbers suggest a seasonal nature of mental illness that could be explored further.

    But — what’s maybe more interesting here is the potential of using Internet searches as a way to learn more about mental illness.

    Mental illness is difficult to quantify since many people don’t seek treatment for their problems, and are thus not counted. Analyzing Internet searches is a relatively cheap tool that could offer insight into what people are concerned about — and where they need the most help.

    One of the key aspects of health-care reform is the integration of physical and mental health. The assumption is that we’re more honest with our computer than with our physicians. This may allow physicians to ask more informed and direct questions — which could lead to more honest answers.

    “Not ‘how are you,’ but ‘are you feeling blue these days, what is your baseline anxiety, is it up or down?'” suggested psychologist Dan Gottlieb.

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