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Reddit posts to determine Covid-19 impact on mental health

CAPE TOWN – Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University looked into the rise in the discussion of negative trends such as anxiety and suicide found in over 800,000 posts on Reddit to help determine the impact the Covid-19 caused on the mental health of social media users and how it impacted communities differently.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, social media platforms play a big part in the mental health of users and at a time of much-needed instant information, could prove beneficial or detrimental with researchers from MIT and Harvard University believing Reddit could be used to identify the mental health of users and provide help for those who may really need it.

“We found that there were these natural clusters that emerged related to suicidality and loneliness, and the amount of posts in these clusters more than doubled during the pandemic as compared to the same months of the preceding year, which is a grave concern,” says Daniel Low, a graduate student in the Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology at Harvard and MIT and the lead author of the study.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, made the use of machine learning to analyse and study the language and tone in post during the earlier months of the pandemic between January and April with the researchers exploring various subreddits – groups formed on Reddit focusing on specific topics – helping explore the different effects the pandemic had caused on varying communities.

Laurie Rumker, a graduate student in the Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics PhD Program at Harvard, and the other lead author of the study, said, “When the mental health needs of so many in our society are inadequately met, even at baseline, 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.”

The team of researchers analysed posts from subreddit groups that were devoted to mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression as well as groups focusing on other topics such as parenting, fitness and personal finance.

The research used several types of natural language processing algorithms which measured the frequency of words linked to the topics of anxiety, death, isolation and substance abuse to helping distinguish the differences in groups as well as identify the similarities.

“Reddit is a very valuable source of support for a lot of people who are suffering from mental health challenges, many of whom may not have formal access to other kinds of mental health support, so there are implications of this work for ways that support within Reddit could be provided,” Rumker says.

The team discovered that a subreddit devoted to health anxiety started posting Covid-19 related content in January, earlier than the other mental health support groups who followed in March and as the pandemic progressed all the other mental health groups began to closely resemble the language often used in the health anxiety group.

The subreddit devoted to personal finance displayed the most negative chance from January to April with a significant increase in the use of words linked to economic stress and negative sentiments.

The researchers found that suicide-related posts doubled since pre-pandemic reports and the groups that were most likely displayed such clusters were support groups for borderline personality disorders and PTSD.

Mental health groups focusing on ADHD and eating disorders were affected earlier in the pandemic than others with the researchers believing that it may be due to lockdown reducing social support systems making it more difficult for people suffering from such disorders to manage their conditions.

The researchers believe the methods used in the study could be applied to Reddit or other social media platforms to analyse real-time posts and provide support and resources to social media users, not just for Covid-19 but many other stressors, by directing them to support groups or providing information on mental health facilities and hotlines.

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