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Every two seconds somebody Googles 'depression' in the UK

What’s the first thing most of us do if we want to find out more about something? Google it. And health is no exception.

Using the latest results for Google’s Keyword Tools (a resource for advertisers to monitor search volumes for terms such as ‘depression’), we have found that people in the UK are making 27 searches a minute for depression, 22 a minute for stress and 21 a minute for anxiety.

Depression Searches in Google
These findings offer a real insight into the mental health of the nation, and reflect the Office for National Statistics’ figures which show that more than 15 million working days per year are lost to sickness absence for stress, depression and anxiety. These recent anxiety statistics and these UK depression statistics also highlight the severity of mental health conditions and just how many people are affected each year. 

We put the findings into a graphic which really brings home the sheer volume of searches being made.

Why are we consulting Google?

Google is the first port of call for many of us when we’re looking for any kind of information, whether it’s world news, celebrity news, football results or historical facts. So, perhaps it’s a natural extension of this that we should consult Google about health issues that are concerning us.

The internet also offers something that traditional health services don’t – instant access 24 hours a day. We are used to getting the information we need exactly when we want it. And when anxious thoughts mean we’re still awake at 3am, the web is always open for business.

The stigma of mental illness?

Another reason for the number of searches made around depression, anxiety and stress online could be the perceived stigma around having a mental illness. Mental health challenges are more common than many realise – one in four people will experience some form of mental illness each year. But this doesn’t stop some of us from worrying we’ll be treated differently if we admit to feeling depressed, anxious or stressed.

Dr Jeanette Downie, Deputy Medical Director and Consultant Psychiatrist for the Priory Group, sees regular examples of this: “I get some people (fairly high powered business people or people who are well known) who are terrified of people finding out and feel that they have absolutely ‘failed’ by being ill, and they often wait until they are really unwell before they come for help.” Dr Downie feels this is a problem unique to mental illness, and “people simply wouldn’t feel the same about a physical illness, like a heart condition.”

Is Googling bad for our mental health?

Should we steer clear of Google completely when it comes to mental health worries? Although there are many websites that offer online tests to determine whether you have anxiety or depression etc., no website can offer the same degree of skill and experience, and the same bespoke service as seeing a medical professional. Dr Downie explains that mental health diagnosis is much more complex than that: “it takes years and years to train to be a psychiatrist, and if it was as easy as just looking up the symptoms or taking a test we (psychiatrists) would all be redundant.”

Dr Downie has had patients who have relied heavily on information they’ve found on the internet: “It’s quite worrying, really. I’ve certainly had patients that have told me that they’ve Googled these things and they’ve just decided that they have pretty serious mental conditions, which they absolutely don’t have. I think the trouble is that the information they find is without authority. I’ve read some of the sites and I think ‘oh my goodness, how misleading is that?’”

So, if we can’t be sure we’ll get accurate information when we Google, where do we start when looking for help online?

Stress Searches in Google

The websites of mental health charities such as Mind, Time to Change, Mental Health Foundation and Rethink Mental Illness contain a wealth of information about the symptoms and treatment of common mental health conditions. But the next step after reading that is to seek personal, professional advice from a medical expert.

There are also online mental health forums available where you can find information and get support. It’s worth noting that some of the posts you read there will be from people at their lowest point, and to remember that their experience won’t necessarily be your experience. One forum worth taking a look at is a supportive online community run by Mind called Elefriends.

January mental health searches – more than the winter blues?

Over the last two years, January has experienced a spike in search volumes across all three search terms - ‘stress’, ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’. 2014’s statistics saw a significant increase in search volumes across ‘depression’ and 'stress’ through October, November and December. Based on this recent upward trend, we forecast that January 2015 will see 1,473,059 searches around ‘depression’, an 11% increase from last year. Why the spike in volumes in January in particular? Does it mean that we experience more mental illness this month?

Dr Downie suggests that it’s likely to be down to a combination of things as opposed to a rise in clinical depression and anxiety: “The days are gloomy and short, it’s just after Christmas and people have been hyped up getting everything ready and can be a bit tired. And it’s sometimes a huge anti-climax.” That’s not to say that the feelings of depression, anxiety or stress that searchers are experiencing aren’t genuine, but that they may well be short-lived.

Anxiety Searches in Google

Regional findings

The data Google provides can be broken down into major cities, offering an insight into where some portions of the search volume originates from. Unsurprisingly, London sees a large proportion of the average total search volume in the UK at 20.8% per month. This amount dwarfs the search volume of the next highest city, Birmingham, by nearly eight times. Birmingham and Manchester showed relatively similar figures of 2.3% and 2.2% respectively for ‘depression’, which could reflect their comparative population. Around the same term, Leeds exhibited a monthly search volume that made up 2% of the total UK search volume at 23,284 searches per month. Glasgow displayed similar figures to Leeds at 22,476 searches per month, making up 1.9% of the UK’s total search volume. However, it must again be noted that these figures represent searches per month and not individual people.

To Google or not to Google?

The statistics for searching depression, anxiety and stress are impressive. And, as more and more of us conduct our life online, we anticipate search volumes for depression, anxiety and stress will continue to increase.

The key to us avoiding misdiagnosing ourselves is to use Google wisely, and ensure that the sites we’re looking at are accurate. But even the best website can’t replace a personal diagnosis from a qualified medical expert. Only then can you ensure you receive the correct diagnosis and the right treatment.

Information about the data

This dataset is taken from Google Keyword Planner from 1st January 2014 until 31st December 2014. The settings used to get this data were based on searches in the UK in English across Google and Search Partners. Datasets are available upon request.

Google bases these datasets for each search term on relevant keywords using Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI). This means that across the search terms ‘depression’, ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ there are a small proportion of duplicated keywords which would naturally appear over all three datasets. These figures represent the number of searches made, as opposed to the number of people searching. For example, 100 of these searches could have been made by the same person, rather than 100 people per 100 searches.

The forecast en-GB were arrived at using multiplicative decomposition of the time series data. By estimating the overall growth trend over the last three years, and taking observations of the seasonal peaks and troughs, we are able to make forecasts of future en-GB which take into account both aspects of the changes in search volumes.

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