Chances are you’ve used the internet to search for health information – many of us do.
But did you know researchers are now using this information to help them piece together information on a whole range of conditions including influenza, dengue fever, kidney stones and, most recently, mental illness?
For example, if you Googled certain mental health terms between 2006 and 2010, this information may have been used in a recent study that found a link between the seasons and Google searches for mental health information.
The researchers found mental health-related queries peaked in winter months and dropped away in summer months, a pattern that also coincides with the number of hours of sunlight in a day.
While links between seasons and some mental health issues have already been established – for instance seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder known to be associated with seasonal changes – these findings surprised the researchers.
One of the researchers, psychiatrist Dr James Niels Rosenquist of Massachusetts General Hospital, said: “We didn’t expect to find similar winter peaks and summer troughs for queries involving every specific mental illness or problem we studied, however, the results consistently showed seasonal effects across all conditions – even after adjusting for media trends.”
Using Google Trends, the researchers assessed all mental health queries from Australia and the United States during the five year period. They then grouped the search terms by type of mental illness, and used mathematical models to detect trends in the searches.
What they found in both countries was mental health-related internet searches dropped during summer. Specifically, searches related to:
eating disorders decreased by 42 per cent in Australia (37 per cent in the US)
schizophrenia decreased by 36 per cent in Australia (37 per cent in the US)
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder decreased by 31 per cent in Australia (28 per cent in the US)
suicide decreased by 29 per cent in Australia (24 per cent in the US)
depression decreased by 22 per cent in Australia (19 per cent in the US)
bipolar disorder decreased by 17 per cent in Australia (16 per cent in the US)
anxiety decreased by 15 per cent in Australia (7 per cent in the US)
obsessive compulsive disorder decreased by 15 per cent in Australia (18 per cent in the US).
By using internet-based searches, the authors argue they avoided some of the challenges involved in looking at population-wide trends in mental illness. Telephone surveys are often used to gather this data, but respondents can be reluctant to discuss their mental health under these circumstances, which makes it difficult for researchers to get access to the information they need.
The study’s lead investigator, Professor John Ayers of the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University, said: “Monitoring population mental illness trends has been an historic challenge for scientists and clinicians alike — the Internet is a game changer. By passively monitoring how individuals search online we can figuratively look inside the heads of searchers to understand population mental health patterns.”
The researchers admit this study doesn’t explain why people conducted these searches; they argue, however, it could help with the development of future research and even online-based treatments for mental illness.