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17 April 2013
Mental health concerns follow seasonal patterns

Searches on Google for information on mental illnesses follow seasonal patterns, leading scientists to suggest that mental health may be more strongly linked with seasonal patterns than previously thought. The researchers have published their work in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Using Google's database of search terms, the multi-institute research team monitored mental health queries in the United States and Australia between 2006 and 2010. All queries relating to mental health were captured and then grouped by type of mental illness, including ADHD, anxiety, bipolar, depression, eating disorders, OCD, schizophrenia, and suicide.

Using statistical analysis to identify trends, the researchers found all mental health queries in both countries were consistently higher in winter than summer.

The research showed eating disorder searches were down by 40 percent in summers (compared to winters) in both the U.S. and Australia. Schizophrenia searches decreased 37 percent during U.S. summers and by 36 percent in Australia. Likewise, searches for bipolar, ADHD, OCD, and depression were all down during the summers in both countries.

Searches for suicide declined 24 and 29 percent during U.S. and Australian summers and anxiety searches had the smallest seasonal change - down 7 percent during U.S. summers and 15 percent during Australian summers.

"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," said researcher James Niels Rosenquist, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The researchers think that Vitamin D (a metabolite of sun exposure) levels might go some way to explaining the findings, but are cautious to put any hypothesis forward. "Is it biologic, environmental, or social mechanisms, explaining universal patterns in mental health information seeking? We don't know," said co-researcher John W. Ayers, from San Diego State University.

Perhaps most importantly, the work shows that researchers across the field of mental health can explore 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," concluded Johns Hopkins researcher Benjamin Althouse.

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Source: American Journal of Preventive Medicine


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