The COVID-19 pandemic increased discussions about anxiety and suicide on Reddit, according to a new AI study by MIT and Harvard University researchers.
The team of researchers analyzed conversations on 15 different subreddits focused on mental health issues, along with 11 different non-mental health forums, such as r/PersonalFinance.
They first used NLP algorithms to find negative semantic changes in posts from 826,961 different users. Next, the team applied machine learning to classify these posts into their support groups. Finally, they used methods, such as topic modelling, to assess how mental health concerns had changed across Reddit since the first COVID-19 wave.
They discovered an overall rise in anxiety and suicide-risk levels and varying other mental health impacts in the different subreddits.
“We found that there were these natural clusters that emerged related to suicidality and loneliness, and the number 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 study lead author Daniel Low in a statement.
The borderline personality disorder and PTSD group became particularly associated with the suicidality group, while a new group surrounding self-harm also emerged.
The r/HealthAnxiety forum showed spikes in posts about COVID-19 in January, around two months earlier than other support groups.
Overall, the mental health groups related to ADHD and eating disorders showed the most negative semantic change, which could be due to lockdowns making these conditions particularly hard to manage. But the most adverse effects were found in r/PersonalFinance.
The researchers showed this type of textual analysis could help mental health professionals or forum moderators support people who are suffering during other stressful situations — such as controversial elections.
“Reddit is a very valuable source of support for a lot of people who are suffering from mental health challenges, many of whom may not have formal access to other kinds of mental health support, so there are implications of this work for ways that support within Reddit could be provided,” said study co-author Laurie Rumker.