Can looking at what people type into search engines tell us when people are most likely to be depressed?
It seems so. And not only can we find out when but who and where too.
When do people get depressed?
Using Google’s own insights for search tool we can very quickly understand when people are most likely to be depressed.
So first of all we start off with a very simple request to the insights for search tool. We type ‘depression’ into the search box, select UK on the right and click search. This then gives us a chart (below) that shows us the varying frequency of people searching with phrases that involve the keyword ‘depression’ from 2004 – date.
You can see there are patterns there but they’re a little fuzzy. What we need to do is to clear out some of the ‘noise’ surrounding the keyword depression. For example, by looking at the bottom of the page in the top searches box, we can see that one of the most searched for terms around ‘depression’ is ‘the depression’ this is definitely not the kind of searches we’re interested in seeing in our chart as we want to know about people who are depressed – not people who are interested in economic history.
So we clear out the ‘noise’ by altering our search for depression to the one below which eliminates those words that we’re not interested in.
Using this new search gives us a much better looking chart (below). I say better because there’s a clear pattern there. Look closely and you’ll see a hump of depressed people at the beginning of every year which tails off dramatically during the summer months and then rises again as the nights close in. Surprisingly there’s a very clear and obvious dip in searches every Christmas time.
Is depression seasonal?
So can we attribute depression to seasonal fluctuations? Not really from this chart. Remember we’re just looking at the UK. To have more confidence we were looking at seasonality as a causative factor in depression, we’d need to compare two countries on polar opposites side by side. Luckily, with Google insights for search, this is easy.
And actually here we can see that Australia also has a trend for depression yet surprisingly a) They’re much more likely to be depressed than we are and b) The trend seems to follow the UK’s despite their seasons being the opposite of ours. There’s a very consistent dip over Christmas but apart from that it seems that when we’re up they’re up and vice versa. They also have a huge dip in June (the start of their winter).
Recent surge in depression
This is confusing for me and makes me wonder if I’ve cut out enough of the ‘noise’. And so my next search is to compare the two countries side by side but actually refine it down even more by looking at people searching for depression symptoms and depression treatment as it should give us a lot of confidence that the people searching for those things are actually depressed.
So to get that information, the search looks like this…
And here are the results…
Ahh now we see. We can hazard a guess that those people we’re looking at here are actually serious about their depression. Actually seeking symptoms and treatment. This hardcore are much less affected by the changing seasons, Christmas etc but interestingly we see far more of them since the start of 2009. I’d say that there’s a candidate for the cause of this rise in the global recession but hang on, isn’t Australia the only western country not to have one? Maybe all the negative global news stories are getting them down, and more down than the UK population it seems especially over the last few months where hope seems to be replacing gloom on our streets.
Which country is the most depressed?
So we’ve looked at Australia and the UK. Let’s see how they fit in globally. The map below shows people searching for our ‘hardcore’ depression terms, treatment and symptoms. The darker the blue, the more relative searches there are and therefore the more depression that country has. On the left we can see the names of the countries in order.
So as you can see. Australia may have the nice beaches and barbe’s but that doesn’t mean they’re happier. Perhaps it’s not seasonal at all or maybe it’s affected by seasons but also by our genes. So genes that get depressed in the winter stay indoors and therefore stay safe and alive and pass their genes on in the summer months? I don’t know, I’m not a scientist but there seems to be very little in the medical or scientific depression literature that even tries to look at where why when and who gets depressed other than looking at particular age groups and seasonality in which they base treatments on such as light treatment (and which we’ve shown may actually be misleading). Using search insights in this way certainly won’t hold all the answers and some may discredit the methodology but it certainly does seem to bring up interesting questions and is effective to the point that Google can now predict flu outbreaks before the US department of health.
The UK depression index
When we look at the UK on its own we can see that the people in Northern Ireland are the most depressed, followed by those on the Isle of Man (I used to live there I’m not surprised!)
Perhaps instead of spending millions on a happiness index David Cameron could employ me as one of his personal aides – I could knock this up for him in minutes and save some cash in the meantime. By clicking on the ‘view change over time’ link just underneath the map of the UK below you can see the changes in the nations mental health occurring since 2004. It’d be interesting to see if this tallies with the happiness index when it eventually gets published.
The round up
Well I hope that hasn’t been too depressing for you. There’s so much more we can delve into in this (I have a tool at work that even tells me which social classes and demographics are most depressed!) if you have any ideas on how you’d like to see it expanded or criticism of the techniques please do take the time to comment in the box below. I do read all the comments (not difficult as I only get about 2).
If you’re new to this stuff and want to try it for yourself then give it a go and have a play around with Google’s search insights tool – highly recommended.
Thanks for reading.
- Dim light may depress you, study says (dispatch.com)
- Gene duplication detected in depression (physorg.com)
- Neurological protein may hold the key to novel depression treatments (indiatalkies.com)
- Sleep and Seasonal Depression (psychologytoday.com)