Tracking mental illness through twitter

Tracking mental illness through twitter

This technique has already been used to track flu cases and researchers are confident that looking at posts on social media can provide accurate and timely information on mental health trends.

Why might this work?

Traditional methods of phone surveys or filling out survey forms to measure mental health statistics have proved ineffective as people are unwilling to disclose private and sometimes damaging information to strangers on a phone. Apart from this, accuracy of the information gathered using this method can be unreliable. Contrary to this, people don’t seem to shy away from divulging similar sensitive information on their social media pages. Research scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Centre for Language and Speech Processing feel that Twitter acts like a ‘modern’ version of a handwritten journal and journals have been used in psychological research since a long time.

How does this work?

The data collection for this study was conducted in three stages. First, all public tweets were searched for statements of self-diagnosis. For example, ‘I was diagnosed with depression.’ Second, algorithms based on natural language processing were formulated to find tweet patterns that might be indicative of mental health issues. For example, a person who has previously tweeted about a depression diagnosis would naturally be inclined to talk more about negative emotions.

And third, algorithms were applied on population levels, for example military and non-military. 

Analyses and result

This study has helped researchers to gather new data on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar diseases, depression, seasonal affective disorder, etc.

For example, analyses of this data revealed that the rate of PTSD was higher in the military population especially those who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Depression showed to be higher in areas where unemployment rates were high.

How can this data help?

An analysis of a patient’s Twitter feed might be helpful to health practitioners and government officials who are trying to determine the course of action to be undertaken – counselling, medical care, etc.

This, however, in no way is touted to replace the prevalent traditional methodologies. It will hopefully prove to be a complementary method of diagnosis which is quick and cost effective.

Researchers are hoping that this study will open up new avenues for further research. It may also provide an opportunity to test some of the previously untested theories which were untested due to the lack of data.

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