A study by researchers at MIT and Harvard University has shown a rise in the discussion of anxiety and suicide during the pandemic.
The impact that social media platforms like Reddit can have on mental health is well documented, but they can also be harnessed to provide insights into our mental health. A recent study demonstrates this, with researchers from MIT and Harvard University having identified a spike in discussion of anxiety and suicide, as well as other negative trends, during the pandemic across more than 800,000 posts on Reddit. The researchers suggest that the findings could be used to identify and help people whose mental health is suffering.
Laurie Rumker is one of the authors of the study and a graduate student in the Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics PhD Program at Harvard. She explained: “We wanted to bring attention to the ways that many people are suffering during this time, in order to amplify and inform the allocation of resources to support them.” Rumker suggests that Reddit acts as a valuable tool for informal mental health support and that the study indicates there are more ways support could be provided via Reddit.
The study, which appears in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, used machine learning to analyze the language and tone of the posts as the pandemic progressed between January and April this year. With Reddit being organized into subreddits, or groups, focused on specific topics, the researchers were able to explore whether the pandemic was affecting certain communities more than others. Posts from 15 subreddits about different mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder, were analyzed. So too were posts from some subreddits not specifically about mental health, such as personal finance, fitness, and parenting.
Reddit Study Findings
The researchers found that posts in the natural clusters related to suicidality and loneliness more than doubled during the pandemic when compared to the year before. While most of the subreddits analyzed saw users beginning to post about the pandemic in March, this started in January for the group focused on health anxiety. However, the language used in other groups began to closely resemble that of the health anxiety group as the pandemic progressed.
The worst-affected groups early in the pandemic were those related to ADHD and eating disorders, with posts about hyperfocusing on the news and relapsing back into anorexia-type behaviors as a result of not being monitored by others becoming more prevalent. This, it was hypothesized, was down to the breakdown of support networks due to distancing and stay-at-home orders. The researchers noted that, while the pandemic could not be isolated as the only factor in such instances, the difference in prevalence from previous years was so stark that its role as a major factor was beyond doubt.
The researchers suggest that this type of analysis could be applied to other social media platforms and during other types of events, such as elections or natural disasters. By applying it in real-time, they say, relevant mental health resources could be served to social media users.
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