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Online Searches Related to Mental Health Stabilized After Spiking Early in Pandemic

February 03, 2021

While statewide stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States were initially associated with an increase in internet searches for mental health symptoms, the effect was temporary—suggesting that people’s mental health stabilized as they adjusted to a new normal. Researchers published their findings online in Economics & Human Biology.

Farkhad
Bita Fayaz Farkhad, PhD (Credit: L. Brian Stauffer)

“Previous studies of the psychological impact of lockdowns during other disease outbreaks have indicated that quarantines are associated with increased mental health symptoms,” said coauthor Bita Fayaz Farkhad, PhD, an economist and a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“We wanted to study how serious the mental health impact of the mitigation phase was during the initial COVID-19 outbreak last spring. Did it go beyond people feeling anxious or disheartened? Was it long lasting, and did it increase suicide ideation and the need for medical treatment for depression?”

To do so, researchers looked at whether mitigation policies correlated with Google searches for terms associated with depression and anxiety, as well as terms for in-home activities, from January 2020 through June 2020.

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“At the outset of the pandemic, consistent with prior research, social distancing policies correlated with a spike in searches about how to deal with isolation and worry, which shouldn't be surprising,” said coauthor Dolores Albarracín, PhD, a professor of psychology and of business administration at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “Generally speaking, if you have a pandemic or an economic shock, that's going to produce its own level of anxiety, depression, and negative feelings, and we had both with COVID-19.”

Within 2 to 4 weeks of peaking, however, such searches tapered off, the study showed.

Researchers also found that social distancing policies were associated with a reduction in searches for “antidepressants” and “suicide,” suggesting no increases in severe mental health symptoms. Searches for “exercise” and “cooking,” meanwhile, rose.

“It is possible that people who were able to work from home liked working from home, liked being able to set their own schedule, and liked being able to exercise more, all of which has positive mental and physical health benefits,” Dr. Farkhad said. “Although they might not be able to go out to a restaurant or bar, they have a little bit more control over other aspects of their life, which enhances well-being.

“That suggests that people adjusted to their new situation and that the negative mental health effects dissipated.”

—Jolynn Tumolo

References

Fayaz Farkhad B, Albarracín D. Insights on the implications of COVID-19 mitigation measures for mental health. Economics & Human Biology. 2021;40:100963.

Ciciora P. Study: negative mental health effects of pandemic lockdowns spike, then fade [press release]. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; January 25, 2021.

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