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Reddit could tell us how the coronavirus is affecting mental health

Researchers from MIT and Harvard are using Reddit to look for ties between mental health and language, which could eventually improve care.

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Applying machine learning to Reddit posts could give insight on language and mental health issues.

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A team of researchers from MIT and Harvard is working to understand the link between language and mental health during the pandemic -- and they've turned to Reddit for answers. 

In a study, published in The Journal of Medical Internet Research this month, the group used machine learning to analyze the text from more than 800,000 Reddit posts coming from 15 subreddits devoted specifically to topics like health anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression, spanning from January to April. They also looked at 11 non-mental health subreddits like parenting and personal finance. 

They found not only that anxiety surrounding health increased across subreddits, regardless of topic, but that there's reason for concern among specific mental health groups whose situation might be complicated or exacerbated by the hardships brought about by the pandemic.

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"It's affecting all of us but certain people are probably more vulnerable," Daniel Low a graduate student in the Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology at Harvard and MIT, as well as the lead author of the study, "we found that [it] is affecting certain groups more than others."

It's no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has upended lives this year. For the past nine months, people have adapted their jobs, schooling, social lives and more to a new reality in which getting too close to other humans could prove detrimental to their health. During this stressful time, when anyone might want to take refuge in a circle of friends and family, that solace has to come from the other side of a Zoom call. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 1 in 5 American adults lives with a mental illness. Meanwhile, research has shown that loneliness was on the rise well before the pandemic even started. Suicide rates increased by 35% between 1999 and 2018, according to the CDC. Meanwhile, not everyone who needs care gets it. A report on The State of Mental Health in America showed that there are 5.1 million adults with a mental illness who are also uninsured. 

As research and reporting have revealed, the pandemic has intensified many of society's inequities and issues and ratcheted up the strain many already experience in their lives. 

Reading into Reddit

In their research, Low and his colleagues have been trying to understand the relationship between language and mental health, looking into whether language changes in a systematic way given different mental health issues, like depression versus schizophrenia. Perhaps something in a person's language could signal symptoms. 

Low, Laurie Rumker and Tanya Talkar, all PhD students in a Machine Learning for Healthcare class at MIT, decided the pandemic could be a lens through which they could approach the idea and Reddit could help them explore it. 

Reddit provided a way to gather anonymized, real-time data specific to these different issues, as well as the ability to see if there were any larger linguistic trends popping up across other subreddits. A place like Reddit is where a lot of people go seeking advice on anything from parenting to gardening, Low said. There could very well be people experiencing severe psychiatric symptoms who would never visit a clinician, but turn to the platform for advice and support. 

Perhaps under other circumstances, the group might have used data from clinical surveys, which would be considered more valid. But the real-time factor and breadth of topics Reddit could provide offered something the surveys could not, they explained. 

"I think we came to realize pretty quickly that studying mental health on Reddit was itself a really interesting thing, because we were able to learn through this project more about Reddit, as a forum for support that is anonymous and that is accessible in ways that maybe traditional mental health care isn't," Rumker said.  

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Rising COVID anxiety

To turn hundreds of thousands of Reddit posts into insights on mental health during the pandemic, the team quantified how many posts in each subreddit had something to do with the pandemic by looking for words like pandemic, respirator, virus and vaccine.

Among their findings, they were able to see spikes in posts about COVID-19 from Redditors on the Health Anxiety subreddit in early January, possibly indicating that those people have been under the stress of the pandemic for even longer than others who might have earnestly started worrying in March. 

Using an approach called clustering, the researchers also looked for any themes in conversation that might have emerged, regardless of subreddit. For example, they found people were talking about stress relating to substance use and alcohol consumption across different subreddits, not necessarily exclusively on the subreddits on addiction and alcoholism. 

Along those lines, they used the same technique to look at posts before and after the pandemic, finding the emergence of clusters around topics like panic attacks. Clusters for suicidality and loneliness more than doubled in size, in terms of number of posts. 

"That to us is reflecting that these are increasing concerns for people," Rumker said.

The team also found that health-related anxiety crept into all the subreddits they looked at, across the board. Going further, Low talked about how other analysis they did looked into whether these subreddits were becoming more similar to each other through the pandemic, and becoming more similar to the health anxiety subreddit. 

"It really, really highlighted once again that this kind of took over a lot of people's lives and they were wondering how to go about and adjust their daily life. Because of COVID," Talkar said.

In addition, they could see how words relating to isolation increased, while words relating to movement decreased. Meanwhile, when looking at groups where people started speaking more negatively or more anxiously about death, for example, they found this was happening more commonly in the groups associated with ADHD and eating disorders.

Reading actual posts from some of these groups revealed comments like "I can't help but feel like this is the perfect time to fast or restrict since no one's monitoring my meals. No, nobody at school noticing I'm skipping lunch for the fourth day in a row."

Making connections with machine learning

Where this research could go, or how it could be built upon remains to be seen. But being able to use insights into how different groups of people with various mental health issues react to something like the pandemic could help clinicians understand the most vulnerable populations. Or, as the team put it in the study, "it is all the more important to identify subpopulations most impacted by the pandemic to triage resource allocation in an informed manner."

Looking farther into the future, well beyond the scope of the study itself, group members offer a few ideas of where all this could go. Perhaps using machine learning to look for mental health insights could help clinicians remote monitor or stay in touch with at-risk patients who want that type of support and intervention. This could even be useful to platforms like Reddit, to connect posters with resources. 

"We really are in a mental health crisis right now," Low said. "It's hard to say when we weren't, when 1 out of 5 adults has a mental health disorder. There's definitely not enough resources right now, critically and so clinicians really need more resources."