Analysis of Twitter posts could provide fresh insight into mental illness trends
Johns Hopkins computers scientists, who have already used Twitter posts to track flu cases, say their techniques also show promise as a tool to gather important information about some common mental illnesses.
By reviewing tweets from users who publicly mentioned their diagnosis and by looking for language cues linked to certain disorders, the researchers say, they have been able to quickly and inexpensively collect new data on post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder.
In research presented at three scientific conferences this year, the scholars described how their techniques of mining public data have yielded fresh numbers on cases of these illnesses, allowing for analyses that were previously difficult or expensive to obtain. The scholars emphasize, however, that their findings do not disclose the names of people who publicly tweeted about their disorders.
Their goal, the researchers say, is to share with treatment providers and public health officials timely additional information about the prevalence of certain mental illnesses. Using computer technology to sift through tweets, they say, can help address the slow pace and high costs associated with collecting mental heath data through surveys and other traditional methods.
“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,” says Glen Coppersmith, a Johns Hopkins senior research scientist who has played a key role in the project. “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.