Mental Health Problems Peak in Winter, Internet Study Finds

The Internet has changed life in many ways. People can now communicate through email, social media and chat rooms, and with or without video. Online shopping is causing malls across the United States to reevaluate their strategies to compete with the convenience and price on the Internet. These are obvious changes that the Internet has introduced, but the scientific community is benefiting from data that unexpectedly changes how associations are detected. A new study finds that Google searches can be used to detect patterns in mental health. The study, which appears in a recent issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, provides evidence that seasonal patterns can be detected in the searches for mental illness symptoms and problems on the search engine Google. The study was led by John W. Ayers, PhD, MA, of the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University, who explains that the Internet has changed how researchers gain information about mental health. Traditionally the information was gathered through phone surveys, but the results were unreliable. Individuals may feel reluctant to disclose the symptoms they experience. In addition, the phone surveys were expensive compared to the use of a simple data draw from Google searches. The researchers used the public database of queries on Google to examine trends from 2006 to 2010 in the United States and Australia. The team counted the number of mental health queries and then grouped them by type (ADHD, for instance, versus anxiety or depression). Through the use of advanced analysis, the researchers discovered that across all mental health queries, the searches were concentrated significantly during the winter months. Searches for topics related to eating disorders were 37 percent lower in the summer in the U.S., and 42 percent lower in Australia. For searches related to schizophrenia, summer saw a 37 percent decline in the U.S. and a 36 percent decline in Australia. The same patterns held true across all types of mental health searches, including bipolar, ADHD, OCD, and suicide. Anxiety had the smallest decline in the summer, down only 7 percent in the U.S. and 15 percent in Australia during the summer. Experts have long known the connection between the seasons and mental health when it came specifically to seasonal affective disorder. The results showing an overall seasonal pattern to mental health were surprising. The researchers were surprised to find a connection between the seasons and all major mental health conditions. The authors explain that the findings could be important in the creation of a way to combat all seasonal fluctuations in mental health through, for instance, a possible treatment involving Vitamin D. The study even implies that future work could further detect patterns in mental health, possibly identifying a “Monday effect” or other trends.

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