The Sciences

How Has The Pandemic Affected Mental Health Research?

I look at how COVID-19 is driving mental health research

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticNov 29, 2020 6:00 PM
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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives this year, and there have been widespread concerns over the mental health effects of the situation.

But when it comes to mental health research, what are the main topics that are being discussed in the pandemic era?

I decided to answer this question by examining the number of PubMed hits for various mental health search terms. PubMed is the leading repository of peer reviewed medical papers.

For each search term, I looked for the ratio of hits in 2020 over 2019 as a rough estimate of the pandemic's impact. A ratio of 1 would mean that there were the same number of hits in both years, suggesting that COVID had no effect on the number of papers about that topic, while a ratio of greater than 1 would mean that 2020 had seen an increase.

Here's the results for a selection of terms:

Graph showing the increase in PubMed hits for various terms, as the ratio of hits for 2020 (year to date) relative to 2019

When it comes to the mental health terms, the most increased ratio was for panic which rose by 1.5, or a 50 percent increase, closely followed by loneliness. (This is actually stronger than the increase for virus, which was 1.24). Boredom, insomnia, fear and anxiety also showed decent increases.

But publications on some terms decreased in 2020. Alcohol and stress both fell, which surprised me because there has certainly been plenty of concern over those two topics.

I was also surprised to see only slight rises in hits for suicide, PTSD and depression. I'd expected to see larger increases. Perhaps more research on these topics is in the pipeline and will soon be published — academic publishing is notoriously slow — but that doesn't explain how panic and loneliness are already showing strong increases.

Overall, it seems that some mental health terms have shown much stronger growth than others in 2020, with panic, boredom and loneliness being major growth areas.

Of course, we don't know that all of the changes in keyword publications in 2020 are a direct result of the pandemic, but my impression is that this is the only likely explanation for them.

You might ask why I didn't directly search for papers mentioning, say, panic and COVID-19 together. The reason is that papers can mention the pandemic in passing without having anything to do with COVID-19. I think that changes in the use of terms in 2020 is a more objective measure of pandemic impact than counting mentions of the pandemic itself.

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