Suicide-related Google searches decreased significantly since onset of COVID-19 pandemic
Internet searches related to suicide decreased during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to results of a cross-sectional study published in JAMA Network Open.
“Given the time delays inherent in traditional population mental health surveillance, it is important for decision-makers to seek other contemporaneous data to evaluate potential associations,” John W. Ayers, PhD, MA, of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues wrote. “To assess the value that free and public internet search query trends can provide to rapidly identify associations, we monitored suicide-related internet search rates during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.”
The investigators used the Google Trends application programming interface to monitor weekly Google search rates for the term "suicide" between January 2010 and July 5, 2020. They excluded results that mentioned the word “squad,” which referenced a popular film. Further, they monitored the top 20 unique queries related to suicide after excluding unrelated terms. Ayers and colleagues compared search rate changes before and after the U.S. declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency during the second week of March 2020.
Results showed a cumulative decrease of 22% (95% CI, 18-26) for all queries containing the term “suicide” in the 18 weeks following the presidential declaration of a national emergency, and these searches never surpassed their expected search rate for any week. Overall, the researchers noted approximately 7.8 million fewer searches than expected and significant decreases in searches for 15 of the 20 related terms, including suicide note, suicidal thoughts and suicidal ideation. The search term “how many people commit suicide” was the only search term that significantly increased, and this may have been potentially associated with interest in suicide facts, according to the researchers.
“Search rates for information on suicide may change, even increase, especially given a prolonged pandemic, making continued monitoring crucial,” Ayers and colleagues wrote. “Moreover, researchers can extend the approach that we used (including tracking online help-seeking searches and social media shares) to empirically assess complementary proxies for other population mental health outcomes. Decisionmakers could track hundreds of mental health search queries, identify the subsets that have greater demand, and target resources to meet those needs.
“Timely, empirical evidence from contemporaneous digital data sources can help steer limited resources to align with the needs of the public and promote data-driven debate regarding the potential societal implications of the COVID-19 pandemic,” they added.