Thursday, May 9, 2013
The economy may be getting its groove back, but the nation's collective mental health remains in a funk. By studying online searches, a local researcher finds that the public's anxieties haven't receded, even though the worst of the recession has.
The economy may be getting its groove back, but the nation's collective mental health remains in a funk. By studying online searches, San Diego State University researcher John W. Ayers has found that the public's anxieties haven't receded, even though the worst of the recession has.
We can already hear the language of psychology in some of the terms we use to diagnose the health of the economy. Consumer confidence, for instance.
Ayers wants to bring that economic perspective into the field of public health. "Let's look at how confident people are in their own mental soundness," he says.
As a researcher at SDSU's Graduate School of Public Health, Ayers has been monitoring our online searches for awhile now. But not in a creepy way.
He uses publicly available data to look at search queries related to mental illness — terms like "anxiety symptoms" or "what is depression." Then he compares that information to other trends happening outside the search box.
One of his recent studies showed that searches for all kinds of mental health problems spike during winter.
In a paper from 2012, Ayers and his colleagues showed that searches for terms connected to mental distress peaked as the Great Recession worsened.
This week, he went back to see if these searches decreased as the economy improved. What he found surprised him.
After sifting through Google's recent search data, Ayers found something surprising.
"People aren't as confident as they were before the Great Recession," he says. "And people are just as unconfident today as they were at the height of the recession."
These findings would suggest that when an economy tanks, the effects can leave long-lasting mental scars in a population even after the economy recovers.
However, researchers have to be careful when studying online search data. Trends plucked from Google have occasionally led to conclusions about public health that totallymiss the mark.
Ayers thinks his research avoids such pitfalls by controlling for polluting signals, like increased media coverage on mental health or searches based on curiosity more than self-diagnosis.
"A lot of the time, we conduct research in very contrived settings," he says, referring to the more conventional ways of studying this subject, such as surveys or clinical experiments. "With online searches, we can actually look inside individuals' heads and see what they're thinking."
Psychologists have known that a bad economy can take a toll on mental health, but Ayers warns that this relationship can cut the other way too.
"You're very unlikely to purchase a new home or a new car if you're not even confident in your own mental health," Ayers said.
He urges policymakers to consider adjusting mental health aid according to the economic outlook.