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Online Searches Show Depression, Mental Illness Spike in Winter

Does wintertime mess with your mind? According to a new study using data from Google, you're not alone. In fact, if online searches are any indication, the wintertime blues might encompass a far greater number of mental illnesses than previously thought.

Does wintertime mess with your mind? According to a new study based on data from Google, you're not alone. In fact, if online searches are any indication, the wintertime blues might encompass a far greater number of mental illnesses than previously thought.

San Diego State University's John W. Ayers wanted to know how often people search Google for mental health-related terms during different seasons. He said his findings show that "all mental health phenomenon that we studied followed a very similar seasonal trend."

Winter, with its short days and lack of sunshine, could be causing seasonal spikes in mental illness-related online searches.

Searches for terms like ADHD, anorexia, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar, schizophrenia and even suicide spike during the winter, across the world.

For a long time now, public health monitors have known that winter is a nasty time for mental illness. Every year, they see depression symptoms rise as temperatures drop. But according to Ayers' study, depression could be just one entry in a long list of mental illnesses made worse by wintertime.

However, these types of studies haven't been without their flaws in the past. For instance, a Google algorithm using flu-related searches to predict influenza outbreaks vastly overestimated this past flu season's severity. Media attention and public interest toward this year's flu season skewed Google's estimates. Just because people were searching for flu information didn't necessarily mean they had the flu.

Ayers is familiar with such problems.

“One of the problems we see with the application of search data is we don’t know the etiology of search. Is it interest, awareness, or — as with influenza this past season — even fear?”

But he thinks that in this case, the mental illness-related searches collected from 2006 to 2010 data publicly released by Google weren't driven by media hype. By isolating searches for specific symptoms (such as hallucination for schizophrenia), the researchers believe they can reasonably conclude these searches were logged by people actually experiencing mental illness.

And if they're right, this could open up a whole new field of inquiry into mental illness, Ayers said.

“We need to start re-theorizing about the mechanisms behind mental health," Ayers said. "We need to start developing studies and designing trials that think about how how our entire mental health is potentially connected to daylight.”

Ayers said this trend wasn't very pronounced in places like San Diego, where seasonal changes are mild. But for those living in cities with bitter winters, this time of year can be mentally rejuvenating.

"Since spring is here, hopefully we will all be feeling a lot better."

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