Google search study suggests pandemic may cause future surge in suicide rates

NEW YORK — The coronavirus certainly offers no shortage of problems and repercussions in the present, but there’s also no telling just long we’ll all be feeling its effects in the coming years and months. Now, an unsettling new study using Google searches finds that the COVID-19 pandemic may cause a big suicide increase in the future.

Researchers from Columbia University analyzed U.S. Google search history statistics to come to this conclusion. The team focused specifically on searches pertaining to financial hardships, disaster relief, and suicide. That investigation revealed that in March and April of this year Google searches for the first two topics increased dramatically, while suicide-related queries dropped.

Historically, suicide rates usually fall in the immediate aftermath of national disasters (9/11, the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak) before surging months later. This historical precedent, along with previous research showing a connection between financial trouble and increased risk of suicide, is why researchers interpreted the Google search data in this way.

“The scale of the increase in Google searches related to financial distress and disaster relief during the early months of the pandemic was remarkable, so this finding is concerning,” says senior study author Dr. Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at the university’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, in a release.

How Google searches can predict suicide rates

Google search trends have long been linked to suicide rates. So when the study’s authors set out to investigate the pandemic’s effects on Americans’ mental health, turning to search engine data was a logical step. An algorithm was used to analyze Google search trends between March 3rd and April 18th of this year. More specifically, researchers were looking for “proportional changes” over that time period for 18 words and phrases related to suicide or suicide risk factors (money problems).

“We didn’t have a clear hypothesis about whether there would be an increase in suicide-related queries during this period of time, but we anticipated a national sense of community during the pandemic that might mitigate suicidal behavior in the short term,” explains first study author Emily Halford, MPH, a data analyst.

The algorithm detected dramatic search increases for phrases like “I lost my job” and words such as “unemployment” and “furlough.” Searches for the national Disaster Distress Helpline are also on the rise. Meanwhile, depression-related searches show a slight increase, and searches regarding panic attacks are up moderately.

“It seems as though individuals are grappling with the immediate stresses of job loss and isolation and are reaching out to crisis services for help, but the impact on suicidal behavior hasn’t yet manifested,” Dr. Gould says. “Generally, depression can take longer to develop, whereas panic attacks may be a more immediate reaction to job loss and having to deal with emotionally charged events amidst the social isolation of the pandemic.”

The downside of social distancing

Predictably, search terms indicating loneliness also increased for this time period in comparison to the same months in 2019. Dr. Gould knows that social distancing is an important aspect of beating COVID-19; but he also asserts that the practice is clearly taking a mental toll on countless people.

“This approach may have detrimental secondary effects, such as loneliness and exacerbation of preexisting mental illnesses, which are known suicide risk factors,” he says.

While always important, researchers say that robust access to mental health services will be extra important over the coming months.

“The current findings give us insight into how people have been dealing with the immediate emotional and financial effects of the pandemic,” Dr. Gould concludes. “Encouragingly, individuals who Google terms related to suicide are directed to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We are hoping that accessing this crisis service may ameliorate suicide risk among the individuals who have Googled suicide-related terms.”

The study is published in PLOS ONE.

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