Countries with stricter pandemic lockdowns had fewer Google searches related to mental illness

Many people feel their well-being and mental state suffered from being locked indoors during the early waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, but stricter and longer lockdowns could- do they actually have positive effects on people’s mental health? A study published in the Psychiatric Research Journal suggests that countries with stricter lockdown requirements showed less internet searches related to mental illness during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by storm and dramatically changed the way many people live. Each country has handled its response to the crisis in different ways; some by imposing strict lockdowns and others by encouraging people to stay at home when possible.

During the first wave of COVID-19, many people stayed home while businesses and schools were closed. This has made the Internet the main and predominant source of information. This study explores what internet searches can reveal about differences in the mental health of citizens of different countries depending on the severity of their confinement.

In the new research, Pedro A. de la Rosa and his colleagues used Google Trends search data from nine countries: Hungary, India, South Africa, Iran, Italy, Paraguay , Spain, Serbia and Turkey. The search terms studied were “anxiety”, “depression”, “suicide” and “mental health”. The data was collected over 5 years of research. Information on each country’s COVID-19 response and lockdowns has been compiled from the Oxford Monitoring the government’s COVID-19 response. Safety measures were collected, as well as information on the number of deaths from COVID-19 in each country.

Results showed that overall, duration, strictness, and lockdown policies were associated with lower Google searches for terms related to mental health. Several nuances are to be noted in this relationship. “Anxiety” was an increasingly searched term as COVID-19 emerged before lockdowns were put into effect. “Depression” was searched for less in countries with stricter containment policies.

These relations were not only general, but related to specific policies. Anxiety was researched less in countries that imposed stricter lockdowns and depression was researched less in countries where public events were canceled. Conversely, depression was sought more often in countries that had policies requiring school closures.

“In summary, this study provides further evidence demonstrating the potential for using Google Trends as a data source to understand how populations in different parts of the world might be affected by public health measures (including lockdowns) that are being implemented in response to a global health crisis,” the researchers said. “Our findings could be used with other evidence (e.g., mental health surveillance studies) to inform the development of strategies for sensitive to the mental health needs of people living in different parts of the world during future public health crises.”

This study has taken important steps to better understand how lockdown policies affect individuals’ mental health searches. Despite this, there are some limitations worth noting. One of those limitations is that Google trends don’t provide insight into why people were searching for those terms, making it difficult to know if people were showing symptoms or searching for another reason. Additionally, search terms were translated to the most popular equivalent word, meaning people could search for a synonym and not be counted.

“Further research is needed to build on the findings of this study, such as whether associations of lockdown measures with Google searches for mental health terms change with vaccination rates or the rise of new variants of SARS-CoV-2,” the researchers noted.

The study, “Associations of strictness and duration of confinement with Google searches of mental health terms during the COVID-19 pandemic: a study in nine countries“, Pedro A. de la Rosa, Richard G. Cowden, Renatode Filippis, Stefan Jeroti, Mahsa Nahidi, Dorottya Ori, Laura Orsolini, Sachin Nagendrappa, Mariana Pinto da Costa, Ramdas Ransing, Fahimeh Saeed, Sheikh Shoib, Serkan Turan, Irfan Ullah, Ramyadarshni Vadivel and Rodrigo Ramalho.

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