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Are we becoming more aware of our mental health?

Stephanie Jesper looks at whether our awareness of mental health issues is increasing.
A dog's nose
© University of York (author: Stephanie Jesper)

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 c85% in 2004, falling to c50% in 2012, and rising to c80% in 2020. There is a similar red line (UK), starting at c50%, falling to c35%, and rising to c70%, and blue line (US), starting at c30%, falling to c25%, and rising to c40%.

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 October 2019 marks the point when most searches for the term “mental health” took place with respect to other searches. It coincides with World Mental Health Day, as well as the last time we ran a version of this Digital Wellbeing course. This peak forms part of an upward trend in proportional use of the search term since a low in 2012 in the middle of what’s been quite a clear curve of declining and increasing interest since Google’s records began in 2004.

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 almost the same proportion of use as 15 years ago.

A similar graph for the UK alone makes for an interesting comparison to the worldwide picture. While they share the same peak of interest (October last year), and a similar trajectory since 2004, the UK’s peak exceeds that seen 15 years ago – in other words, the UK has never been more interested in searching for the term “mental health”. The US line (pegged to the UK high in the graph) also had its peak last October, again exceeding the term’s popularity at any point in the preceding decade-and-a-half: 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 last October 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 15 years, is perhaps significant.

An increase in searches for information about mental health implies, one way or another, an increased awareness of mental health. This ought, logically, to 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.

© University of York (author: Stephanie Jesper)
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