Social Network Helps Deal With Depression

Unless you live under a rock (and I hasten to say I love all my rock-dwelling readers) you probably know that mental health is very much in the news lately, for obvious and tragic reasons. So this news couldn’t be more timely: an article from researchers at MIT and Northwestern claims that a social network dedicated to mental health can help people with depression to manage and cope with their illness.

The article, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, describes an experimental social network created by the researchers, called Panoply, which serves as a “peer-to-peer,” “crowd-sourced” platform for people with depression to discuss their illness with each other -- in effect, kind of like a virtual support group.

To measure its effects, the researchers compared the progress of 82 subjects using Panoply with a control group of 82 subjects who simply kept personal journals. The researchers found that the platform helped users calm their feelings of anxiety and lessen symptoms of depression, principally by encouraging them to engage in “cognitive reappraisal,” a practice in which the subject examines a difficult situation from fresh perspectives. For example, a person dealing with anxiety might write about the cause of the anxiety and why they feel the way they do; then other users may reply by offering different perspectives on the situation.



The authors emphasize that Panoply, and similar social networks dedicated to mental health, can never be a substitute for professional help. However they can be a useful adjunct, by helping patients to manage their emotional states during emergent periods of depression or anxiety, when they’re unable to talk to their therapist.

Although experimental, Panoply may soon become more widely available as a general access social network called Koko, currently in beta. To make the transition there will obviously have to be adequate privacy controls and content moderation measures in place, but given the important connection between social interaction and human psychology, the idea of “crowd-sourced” emotional self-management definitely seems promising.

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