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Reddit posts show that anxiety, talk of suicide spiked among users when Covid first hit

Researchers from MIT and Harvard University analyse language of over 8 lakh posts on forums to do with mental health and other concerns during the initial stages of the pandemic.

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New Delhi: An analysis of over 8 lakh posts on the social media site Reddit has found that anxiety levels and suicide risk spiked among its users during the initial stages of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard University in the US analysed the language from 15 subreddits or forums on mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other groups centred on personal finance and parenting.

Using machine learning, researchers mapped out the changes in tone and content of the language Reddit users were using as the pandemic progressed.

The study, published in October in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, aimed to “leverage natural language processing with the goal of characterising changes in 15 of the world’s largest mental health support groups found on the website Reddit, along with non-mental health groups during the initial stage of the pandemic.”

Also read: 60% of mental health queries from young adults aged 21-30, says report by telemedicine app

Increase in negative semantics during pandemic

The study found a significant increase in the use of words like ‘economic stress’, ‘isolation’ and ‘home’ in these subreddits.

Furthermore, support groups for attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders and anxiety showed a significantly negative change in semantics during the pandemic.

Researchers also found that health anxiety emerged as a pre-dominant theme across Reddit.

It was found that the more users posted about Covid-19, the mental health support groups became more linguistically similar.

Daniel Low, lead author of the study, said, “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.”

The study also demonstrated that textual analysis was “sensitive” to decoding mental health complaints and identifying vulnerable groups during the pandemic.

Researchers suggested that these methods may be useful in studying the impact other world-changing events like elections and protests, as well.

“When Covid hit, we were all curious whether it was affecting certain communities more than others,” Low said.

“Reddit gives us the opportunity to look at all these subreddits that are specialised support groups. It’s a really unique opportunity to see how these different communities were affected differently as the wave was happening, in real time,” he added.

Also read: Covid patients at risk of developing psychiatric illnesses, shows Oxford study of US records


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