Study: Social Media Can Locate, Identify Mental Health Needs

March 18, 2014 in News

Social media posts can reveal insights about mental health and can help determine how to best distribute funding and resources to help communities under distress, according to a new study, NBC News reports.

Details of Study

For the study, Munmun De Choudhury, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Andres Monroy-Hernandez, a researcher at Microsoft, examined two years of Twitter data from four cities in Mexico. They investigated how those communities responded to the ongoing conflict between the country’s government and the drug cartels, as well as between rival drug cartels and among citizen vigilante groups.

The researchers then created algorithms designed to find indicators of stress and numbness to violence, among other mental health factors. Specifically, the algorithms were designed to:

  • Scan tweets for specific words or groups of words;
  • Calculate the frequency of messages; and
  • Log the time at which the messages and updates were posted.


The researchers noted that Twitter and other social media outlets often are used to distribute news and convey reactions when traditional media sources are suppressed in violent areas, noting that social media helps users to “inform and collectively grieve, critique and express frustration about violence in the streets.”

However, they found that conversations and news distributed through these social media sources — and also in person — showed signs that civilian bystanders in the surveyed cities eventually started to grow numb to reports and images of the violence. The authors found that this numbness was maintained, even when there were reports that violence was increasing.

The researchers concluded that these findings potentially could help direct mental health resources and aid to the groups or areas most in need of assistance.


De Choudhury said that while the findings do not readily translate into “simple tips” to identify mental distress, they show the potential long-term mental health effects of violence on a population.

In addition, she said that such indicators can help “make interventions to make sure that people receive the right kind of attention at the right time” (Subbaraman, NBC News, 3/16).

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