Researchers use Google to gauge nation’s mental health

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SAN DIEGO — The stock market has recovered from the recession, but mental health concerns remain high, according to a study released today by San Diego State University based on Google searches using psychological distress terms.

Online queries that included psychological distress terms rose during the recession and remain high, even though the Dow Jones Industrial average is in record territory, having crossed 15,000 threshold Tuesday, said John Ayres, SDSU’s Graduate School of Public Health research professor.

“Even as the economy improves, the nation’s mental health continues to falter, with mental health concerns remaining near a 10-year high” said Ayers. “Public health surveillance remains underfunded, so scientists have not had the data to understand the Great Recession’s impact on mental health — until now.”

He said search phrases like “depression symptoms” or “signs of anxiety” were used on Google about as frequently over the past six months of economic recovery as during the height of the recession in 2009.

Those types of queries are being used on search engines 40 percent more than before the recession, according to Ayres.

“Considering that a study published in the British Medical Journal recently associated psychological distress with increased mortality, these trends are very troubling,” Ayers said.

The last six months of data built on previous research by Ayres and colleagues from the University of Southern California, University of North Carolina, University of Georgia and Johns Hopkins University. The study was based on Google search queries from 2004 to 2010 in the United States and published  last year in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Researchers found that Google searches for psychological distress term exceeded 1 million per month during that time period, and that about 300,000 of them may be attributable to specific changes in the economy.

A 1 percent increase in mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures was associated with a 16 percent increase in psychological distress-like searches the following month, they said. Those query words increased by 6 percent for every 1 percent climb in unemployment.

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