Google Trends Word Frequency Analysis on COVID-19 Pandemic-Related Help-Seeking Behaviors

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Jamie Taber, Jamie Besaw, & Emily Curren

THE SARS-CoV-2 CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has left individuals in unprecedented territory and has resulted in a significant increase in stress and anxiety throughout the United States (Fiorillo et al., 2020). With mandatory social distancing and limited in-person interactions, individuals have turned to online resources to help manage mental health symptoms (Ayers, 2020). Help-seeking can involve several types of assistance, including instrumental, information, affiliative, emotional, and treatment (Rickwood & Thomas, 2012). Modern technology, such as search engines, has made finding resources for all of these types of help-seeking more accessible, and virtual help-seeking is increasingly common. Indeed, 80.66% of respondents in one survey (Pretorius et al., 2019) would seek help for a personal or emotional concern online, and 82.57% of those respondents have used an Internet search to do so.

One way researchers can study virtual help-seeking behavior is by using Google Trends, which maintains reports of the frequency with which words and phrases are searched. Word frequency analysis using Google Trends has demonstrated strong validity and reliability for assessing shifts in search volumes (Blair et al., 2002; Mavragani et al., 2018). This method has already been used to track the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on psychological well-being (Brodeur et al., 2020). After the US national emergency declaration on March 13th, 2020, general searches about anxiety spiked 11% above normal (Ayers, 2020). This increase in anxiety-related searches was also found following the New York statewide lockdown on March 22, 2020, with relative search volume 18% greater than expected (Stijelja & Mishara, 2020). Similar spikes have also been found in the United States for depression, panic attack, and loneliness (Halford et al., 2020). This methodology could also be applied to potential pandemic-related increases in help-seeking, as was partially supported by Halford et al.’s study finding an increase in searches for national suicide hotline, crisis text line, and disaster distress helpline. The current study focused on alternative help-seeking behaviors (i.e., virtual self-help, professional help-seeking) related to psychological well-being. Therefore, we hypothesized that online searches related to help-seeking behaviors would increase in the United States during the 6 months after the March 13, 2020 national emergency declaration compared to data from one year prior to this declaration. [Continue…]