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Earthquakes Might be Taking a Toll on Oklahomans' Mental Health

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Earthquakes may be causing Oklahomans’ mental health to suffer.

"From 2010 to 2017, it looked like after there were fault earthquakes — earthquakes larger than or equal to magnitude 4.0 — in the state of Oklahoma, people were searching about anxiety more often on Google compared to times there weren’t these earthquakes," said Joan Casey, a researcher at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health.

Those results are from a study in the journal Environmental Epidemiology.

Not only did the increase in Google searches for anxiety after earthquakes outpace an existing upward trend, but it also persisted for several weeks after an earthquake.

University of California Merced assistant professor of public health Sidra Goldman-Mellor said anxiety is the psychological disorder most commonly tied to experiencing a natural disaster.

"When we’re studying the impacts of environmental practices and other kinds of things on health, mental health is often a neglected topic in there, even though mental health problems are a huge source of disability in the U.S. and around the world," Goldman-Mellor said.

Casey said their next step is finding data to see specific effects earthquakes have on mental health.

"That’s something we might be able to do using claims data from hospitals in the state of Oklahoma, where we’d have diagnoses for mental health outcomes among people coming into clinics and hospitals, and we could look at those in relation to these earthquakes," Casey said.

The study is the first to look at anxiety from man-made natural disasters. Oil and gas wastewater disposal is linked to much of Oklahoma’s seismic activity, and researchers think Oklahomans may be more anxious about earthquakes because they are linked to human activity.

Researchers also think real-time mental health monitoring using a method like online search analysis could improve oil and gas regulation.