Researchers have found that Google searches for information about financial difficulties and disaster relief have increased sharply compared to the pre-pandemic times while googling related to suicide decreased.
Because previous research has shown that financial distress is strongly linked to suicide mortality, the researchers fear that the increase may predict a future increase in deaths from suicide.
The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.
“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,” said study author Madelyn Gould from the Columbia University Vagelos in the US.
Researchers in the US and elsewhere have begun studying the effects of the pandemic on mental health, but the impact on suicidal behaviour and deaths is difficult to assess due to lag time in the availability of mortality data.
Previous studies suggest that suicide rates often decrease in the immediate aftermath of national disasters, such as 9/11, but may increase several months later, as seen after the 1918 flu pandemic and the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong.
Studies internationally have linked Google search behaviour with suicidal behaviour, so in the current study, the team evaluated online searches about suicide and suicide risk factors during the early part of the pandemic and potentially long-term impact on suicide.
The researchers used an algorithm to analyse Google trends data from March 3, 2019, to April 18, 2020, and identify proportional changes over time in searches for 18 terms related to suicide and known suicide risk factors.
They found dramatic relative increases (in the thousands of percentages, in some cases) in Googling search terms related to financial distress — e.g., “I lost my job”, “unemployment”, and “furlough” — and for the national Disaster Distress Helpline.
The proportion of queries related to depression was slightly higher than the pre-pandemic period and moderately higher for a panic attack.
“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 behaviour hasn’t yet manifested,” Gould said.
“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,” she noted.