What Twitter Can Tell Us About Mental Illness

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Public health experts have turned to social media to get a sense of how the flu is spreading. But what can Twitter tell us about mental illnesses like PTSD, depression, and bipolar? Some Johns Hopkins scientists set out to find out.

The flu tweet project analyzed the prevalence of words like “sick” and “fever” in millions of online messages. For this mental health project, Hopkins scholars data mined the tweets of people who have publicly mentioned their diagnosis.

Using social media allows researchers to track mental illness trends quickly and inexpensively. “With many physical illnesses, including the flu, there are lots of quantifiable facts and figures that can be used to study things like how often and where the disease is occurring, which people are most vulnerable, and what treatments are most successful,” Glen Coppersmith, a Johns Hopkins senior research scientist who worked on the project, told the Hopkins Hub. “But it’s much tougher and more time-consuming to collect this kind of data about mental illnesses because the underlying causes are so complex and because there is a long-standing stigma that makes even talking about the subject all but taboo.”

Researchers analyzed the tweets by looking for phrases that indicate anxiety, insomnia, or sadness — things like “I just don’t want to get out of bed.”

So far, the research has shown that PTSD appears to be more prevalent near military bases that frequently deploy troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Places with higher unemployment rates showed more depression-related tweets. There’s a little bit of a duh factor here, of course, but the researchers hope that these tools won’t just be used to confirm our preconceived notions about who suffers from mental illness, but rather proactively identify mental health trends as they happen.

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