Story at a glance
- Researchers analyzed historical Google search data regarding acute anxiety symptoms to predict future searches as the U.S. is reckoning with the pandemic.
- The study found that results were significantly higher in 2020 versus data from the same time over previous years.
- This indicates more Americans are grappling with mental health struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anxiety and depression brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has been well documented as people were forced to adopt sudden new lifestyle changes, such as social distancing and isolating indoors — all of which was compounded by the stress of possibly becoming infected or infecting others with a new pathogen.
New research conducted by scientists at the University of California San Diego Human Research Protections Program investigates and quantifies if Americans have been struggling with mental health and wellness during the pandemic.
According to Google searches across the U.S., more people than average are having mental health trouble amid the pandemic.
Published in the medical research journal JAMA, the report authors studied the volume of search queries primarily surrounding acute anxiety. Researchers monitored affiliated terms entered in Google’s search engines, specifically “anxiety attacks” and “panic attacks” due to its high prevalence related to other mental health problems.
When referencing historical trends from January 2004 to March 2020 to predict searches for May 2020, researchers found that all searches related to acute anxiety were 11 percent higher than anticipated.
A spike in searches related to anxiety and mental health was recorded at 3.4 million queries, which is approximately 375,000 higher than previous years.
This search coincided with milestones in the U.S.’s experience with the coronavirus pandemic, such as when President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13.
This largest uptick in anxiety-related searches came on March 28, where researchers noted 52 percent more searches than expected based on historical trends. Both of these fell within a larger time frame between March 16 and April 14, where searches continued to rise, resulting in a 17 percent higher uptick than expected. The milestone in the pandemic came as new social distancing and isolation guidelines were imposed on March 16 and when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the use of face masks when in public on April 3.
Searches began to return to normal levels on April 15, falling to anticipated prediction periods in the following weeks.
The authors mention that mental health surveillance should continue to evolve over the course of the pandemic in the event of more severe rises in Americans’ anxiety levels, noting that public resources should make mental health treatment available to people nationally.
Researchers further ask that the Google 'OneBox' feature used to provide helpful links and information upon a search query’s return should be extended to mental health queries.
“A ‘panic attack’ Google query does not return any links to helplines, even though Google has pioneered the 'OneBox' approach to mental health queries,” the report authors wrote.
Providing quick access to public health hotlines like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Disaster Distress Helpline would be one example of providing better help for users experiencing mental health crises.
The study was conducted using Google Trends analyses on public data.