NIH Using Twitter to Study Depression

Major depressive disorder affects roughly one out of six people (16.2% of the population) at some point in their lifetime, but it can still be difficult to study because many sufferers don’t seek treatment. However the rise of social media gives researchers another channel for gathering data on depression, as people share more and more information about their emotional states online.

Towards that end, the National Institutes of Health is funding a study by the University of California, San Diego that uses Twitter as a tool for monitoring major depressive disorder in the general population. The NIH grant states that the study will explore how Twitter may be used as an adjunct to the traditional large-scale telephone surveys as a means of tracking the incidence of depression over time.

The UCSD methodology relies on Natural Language Processing algorithms to analyze posts by large numbers of Twitter users in order to determine their emotional states. In what is presumably a qualitative component of the study, researchers will also interact directly with depressed people on Twitter.

Researchers have already established social media’s utility for tracking infectious disease outbreaks. According to a report published in the July 18, 2013 edition of Clinical Infectious Diseases, Facebook users in Minnesota were able to identify tainted food as the source of a strep throat outbreak. Previously, in 2011 I wrote about a case where the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health used social media to trace an outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease at a trade conference party held at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. And in 2012 I wrote about the use of Twitter to track a cholera outbreak in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in January 2010.

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