10/18 News Flash 13: COVID-19 and Psychological Distress—Changes in Internet Searches for Mental Health Issues in New York During the Pandemic

Graphic by Maria Fernanda Pacheco.

Back in March, the coronavirus pandemic started to engulf the world. In hard hit locations, it seemed like the movie “Contagion” was playing in real time, with overfilled hospitals, a deficit of testing, widespread lockdowns, and widespread death. 

New York was one of the first locations to be devastatingly struck by the coronavirus. But while the toll of the virus in the city has been quantified and well understood by medical chaos and economic hardship, its impact on the mental health of millions of New Yorkers has been more difficult to grasp.

According to researchers from the University of Quebec, “social isolation, restrictions of activities, workplace closures, as well as associated financial losses and the fears of COVID-19 may place a considerable psychological burden on people.” In a paper published on JAMA, the group investigated trends in mental health and psychological distress by analysing internet searches. Three weeks after shutdown, searches for anxiety increased by 18 percent. One week after shutdown, searches for panic attacks soared by 56 percent and remained high for five weeks. During the entire lockdown, searches for insomnia went up by 21 percent.

While these levels have since decreased, the study notes that this could be due not to decreasing symptoms, but to people having exhausted search engines. With hope of a swift end to COVID-19 drifting further away and the looming possibility of a second wave, this study highlights the importance of helpful and clear online mental health resources.