Many people feel their well-being and mental state suffered as a result of being locked inside during the early waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, but could stricter and longer lockdowns actually have positive effects on people’s mental health? A study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research suggests that countries with more stringent lockdown requirements showed less mental illness-related internet searches during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm and drastically changed the way many people were living. Each country handled their crisis response in different ways; some by enforcing strict lockdowns and some by encouraging people to stay home when possible.
During the initial wave of COVID-19, many people were staying in the home while businesses and schools were shut down. This caused the internet to become the primary and predominant source of information. This study explores what internet searches can reveal about the mental health differences for citizens of different countries based on their lockdown severity.
In the new research, Pedro A. de la Rosa and colleagues utilized Google trends search data from nine countries: Hungary, India, South Africa, Iran, Italy, Paraguay, Spain, Serbia, and Turkey. Search terms studied were “anxiety,” “depression,” “suicide,” and “mental health.” Data was collected spanning 5 years of searches. Information about each country’s COVID-19 response and lockdowns were compiled from the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. Safety measures were collected, as well as information on number of COVID-19 deaths in each country.
Results showed that overall, the duration, stringency, and policies of lockdowns were associated with lower Google searches for mental health related terms. There are several nuances to note in this relationship. “Anxiety” was an increasingly searched term while COVID-19 was emerging before lockdowns were put into effect. “Depression” was searched less in countries with more stringent lockdown policies.
These relationships were not only general but were found in regard to specific policies. Anxiety was searched less in countries that imposed stricter stay-at-home lockdowns and depression was searched less in countries where public events were canceled. Conversely, depression was searched for more often in countries that had policies that required schools to close.
“In summary, this study provides further evidence demonstrating the potential for Google Trends to be leveraged as a data source for understanding how populations in different parts of the world might be affected by public health measures (including lockdowns) that are implemented in response to a global health crisis,” the researchers said. “Our findings could be used alongside other evidence (e.g., surveillance studies of mental health) to inform the development of lockdown strategies that are sensitive to the mental health needs of people living in different parts of the world during future public health crises.”
This study took important steps into better understanding how lockdown policies affected individual’s mental health searches. Despite this, there are some limitations to note. One such limitation is that Google trends does not lend itself to understanding the reason people were searching for these terms, making it difficult to know if people were experiencing symptoms or doing research for another reason. Additionally, search terms were translated into the most popular equivalent word, meaning people could be searching for a synonym and not be counted.
“Additional research is needed to build on the findings of this study, such as whether the associations of lockdown measures with searches in Google for mental health terms change according to vaccination rates or the rise of new SARS-CoV-2 variants,” the researchers noted.
The study, “Associations of lockdown stringency and duration with Google searches for mental health terms during the COVID-19 pandemic: A nine-country study“, 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.