Natural Language Processing Reveals Health Anxiety on Reddit During COVID-19: Observational Study


Using several types of Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms, the team of scientists including Indian origin from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University showed they can track the pandemic’s impact on mental health by analyzing the language that people use to express their anxiety online.

Satrajit Ghosh, Principal Research Scientist,MIT.

Satrajit Ghosh, a principal research scientist at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the senior author of the study published in the Journal of Internet Medical Research discovered that while people in most of the support groups began posting about Covid-19 in March, the group devoted to health anxiety started much earlier in January.

They also discovered that the mental health groups affected the most negatively early in the pandemic were those related to ADHD and eating disorders

The researchers analyzed posts from 15 sub-reddit groups devoted to a variety of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder.

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, and collectively analyze more than 800,000 Reddit posts from 2018 to 2020 and found that users’ anxiety and suicide risk levels are rising, among other negative trends, in the pandemic.

“The topics within these subreddit support groups were shifting a bit, as people were trying to adapt to a new life and focus on how they can go about getting more help if needed,” said another author of the paper Tanya Talkar, a graduate student in the Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology at Harvard and MIT; John Torous, director of the digital psychiatry division at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; and Guillermo Cecchi, a principal research staff member at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center..

The researchers now plan to apply this approach to study whether posts on Reddit and other social media sites can be used to detect mental health disorders.

The findings could help psychiatrists, or potentially moderators of the Reddit forums that were studied, to better identify and help people whose mental health is suffering, the researchers 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,” said Daniel Low from Harvard and MIT and the lead author of the study.

The analysis revealed varying impacts on people who already suffer from different types of mental illness.