Many of us turn to Reddit for product information, inspiration in Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, and stories about animals doing amazing things. Recently, researchers have turned to Reddit to help analyze depression and anxiety to improve mental health care and reduce suicide rates.
Three Ph.D. students and their advisor were motivated by a suicide mortality by state map released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the increasing severity of mental health crisis — further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The team is at the Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics.
“Since social media platforms like Reddit are accessible, convenient, and anonymous, more users candidly express feelings about their own mental health issues,” said Shailik Sarkar, first author of “Predicting Depression and Anxiety on Reddit: a Multi-task Learning Approach.” Sarkar’s collaborators are fellow students Abdulaziz Alhamadani and Lulwah AlKulaib, and Chang-Tien Lu, professor of computer science and associate director of the Sanghani Center.
They began analyzing Reddit posts to help social workers, and other professionals, better understand and tackle different aspects of mental health issues. What’s different about their approach? They didn’t rely on subreddits like r/Anxiety, r/Depression, or r/SuicideWatch. The team reasoned that people posting in these subreddits might also suffer from other mental health conditions that might confuse their results.
Their unique model extracts words and phrases used in posts and assigns them a score. They looked for terms like “meds,” “panic attacks,” “often,” “taking,” and “worrying,” which could suggest anxiety, while “struggling,” “therapist,” “don’t want,” “need,” and “anymore” could indicate depression.
“Insights into the kind of language used by those suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses can be of great benefit to social workers and mental health practitioners. A better understanding of those under their care may help prevent incidents of suicide,” said Sarkar. “Reddit posts can be longer than other social media posts, especially when pertaining to mental health discussion, so there is a very good chance that the same post will fall into different categories.”