New research found that in the United States, Google searches for ‘worry,’ ‘anxiety,’ and therapeutic techniques to manage worry and anxiety have increased during the pandemic.
The research, featuring as a commentary in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, highlights the burden the COVID-19 pandemic has placed not only on people’s physical health but also their mental health.
COVID-19 and mental health
COVID-19 has had a profound effect on people. The world is approaching one million recorded deaths from the disease. And, some of those who recovered from the initial virus effects continue to suffer long-term symptoms that are yet to be fully understood.
Once the knock-on effects of the disease factor in — for example, overwhelmed critical care units prolonging treatment times for people with other serious illnesses — then it is clear that the pandemic has had a devastating effect on people’s health around the world.
However, as well as people’s physical health, it is also becoming clear that the pandemic is significantly affecting their mental health.
Early in the pandemic, there were anecdotal reports that people’s mental health was worsening, including those with pre-existing mental health issues and those whose mental health was normally well. As time has gone on, more research has started to corroborate these reports.
In the present study, the researchers wanted to explore an alternative way of determining the pandemic’s effects on mental health: analyzing Google search requests.
Google Trends allows anyone to see the search terms that people use for various populations, globally and locally. As Dr. Michael Hoerger, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Tulane University Cancer Center, New Orleans, and his co-authors note:
“Although by no means a ‘window into the soul,’ people’s search terms reflect relatively uncensored desires for information and thus lack many of the biases of traditional self-report surveys.”
Previous health science research has made use of Google Trends data in studies, and the present study’s investigators wanted to see how effective it could be in the context of mental health in the current pandemic.
To do this, they accessed weekly U.S. search terms from April 21, 2019 to April 21, 2020.