A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has shown that the seasonal link with mental illnesses may be stronger than we previously thought. The data was collected over a period from 2006 to 2010.
One of the patterns observed was that mental health searches reached a peak in the winter months and they decreased during the summers. This can easily be explained by the hours of sunlight in a day during these seasons.
While some conditions like seasonal affective disorder are classically known to be associated with seasons, the connection with many major mental disorders was surprising.
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.”
Lead investigator John W. Ayers, PhD, MA, of the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University said, “It is very exciting to ponder the potential for a universal mental health emollient, like Vitamin D (a metabolite of sun exposure). But it will be years before our findings are linked to serious mental illness and then linked to mechanisms that may be included in treatment and prevention programs. Is it biologic, environmental, or social mechanisms explaining universal patterns in mental health information seeking? We don’t know.”
The researchers used Google trends to monitor the Google searches performed for various health queries during the five year period in Australia and America. The detected trends were based on mathematical models.
Here is a list of a few mental-health related searches that decreased in the summer months:
- eating disorders decreased by 42 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)
- 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)
- schizophrenia decreased by 36 per cent in Australia (37 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)
The researchers argued that the internet searches helped them identify population-wide trends of mental illnesses. Typically telephone surveys are used to take a glimpse of the respondent’s minds. This method of data collection also avoided challenges like hesitancy to reveal information about mental illness over the telephone.
Professor John Ayers of the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University, the study’s lead investigator 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.”
Although the researchers admit that they cannot explain the reasons behind the seasonal variations but this information can definitely provide valuable help with future research development and online-treatment for mental illnesses.
Benjamin Althouse, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and researcher on the study said, “Our findings can help researchers across the field of mental health generate additional new hypotheses while exploring other trends inexpensively in real-time. For instance, moving forward, we can explore daily patterns in mental health information seeking … maybe even finding a ‘Monday effect.’ The potential is limitless.”