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Are we becoming more aware of our mental health?

Awareness campaigns have been trying to improve our understanding of mental health for a long time. World Mental Health Day has been going since the early ’90s; Australia has been running a Mental Health Week since 1985 and the United States has had a Mental Health Awareness Month since the late 1940s. So has our awareness actually increased?

One measure of public interest (and hence awareness) is what people are searching for on Google. The graph below shows Google ‘search interest’ for the term “mental health” relative to its peak (100% here is not 100% of all searches, but rather the point at which there were the highest proportion of searches for “mental health” historically. All other interest is shown as a proportion of that all-time high).

“mental health” Google searches (comparative)

The graph shows a regularly jagged green line (Worldwide) following a curve starting at c100% in 2004, falling to c50% in 2012, and rising to c75% in 2018. There is a similar red line (UK), starting at c75%, falling to c45%, and rising to c85%, and blue line (US), starting at c40%, falling to c30%, and rising to c45%.

There are clear spikes of interest in that graph: particularly in October, corresponding to World Mental Health Day and in spring, apparently coinciding with a range of other awareness drives. There’s even a decided dip at Christmas. But it’s the overall picture that we need to concentrate on. If we look at the worldwide data, the orange lozenge at September 2004 marks the point when most searches for the term “mental health” took place with respect to other searches. Comparative interest in that term declined steadily to about a half by the end of 2012, before picking up again to the ¾-mark it currently inhabits.

In other words, there’s comparatively more interest in “mental health” now (as a proportion of Google’s traffic) than what there was five years ago, but about the same interest as ten years ago, and less interest than 15 years ago.

A similar graph for the UK alone makes for an interesting comparison to the worldwide picture. Here the all-time high is in May 2018, implying a greater proportional interest than ever before. The US line (pegged to the UK high in the graph) has its peak in February 2018. The term “mental health” accounts for proportionally less searches in the US than it does in the UK, but both territories are showing an upswing.

Of course, these figures are comparative rather than absolute. We don’t know for sure that there were more searches for “mental health” in the UK this May than at any other point since 2004, just that there were a greater proportion of searches than ever before. That said, estimates suggest that the total number of google searches is constantly increasing, which would indeed imply an increase in the number of searches for “mental health” (and also a greater sample-size). That this interest is proportionally higher, in some territories at least, than it has been in the last decade-and-a-half, is perhaps significant.

Increased awareness of mental health should logically lead to increased diagnosis of mental health conditions. But it should also generate better awareness of the ways in which we can manage our mental health, and mitigate, or even outright prevent, certain mental health problems.

So do the stats bear this up? Are we seeing an increase in people seeking treatment for mental health disorders? That’s something we’ll take a look at in the next step, but in the meantime you can share your thoughts in the comments below.

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This article is from the free online course:

Digital Wellbeing

University of York