Researchers use machine learning to track the pandemic’s impact on mental health

Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have used machine learning techniques to analyse the text of hundreds of thousands of Reddit posts.

The researchers have revealed several key impacts on mental health, including an overall increase in anxiety and in thoughts about suicide.

Analysing the language that people have used in over 800,000 posts on the social media platform, the researchers were able to identify changes in the tone and content of language that people used as the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic progressed, from January to April of 2020.

Their analysis revealed several key changes in conversations about mental health, including an overall increase in discussion about anxiety and suicide.

Daniel Low, a graduate student in the Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology at Harvard and MIT and the 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.”

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

The researchers analysed posts from 15 subreddit groups devoted to a variety of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder. They also included a handful of groups devoted to topics not specifically related to mental health, such as personal finance, fitness, and parenting.

Using natural language processing algorithms, the researchers measured the frequency of words associated with topics such as anxiety, death, isolation, and substance abuse, and grouped posts together based on similarities in the language used.

The researchers said this type of analysis could help mental health care providers identify segments of the population that are most vulnerable to declines in mental health caused by not only the Covid-19 pandemic but other mental health stressors.