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VT students analyzing Reddit to better understand mental health, prevent suicide

Crystal Graham
reddit on cell phone
(© prima91 – stock.adobe.com)

Three Ph.D. students at Virginia Tech and their advisor are analyzing Reddit to better understand and tackle different aspects of mental health issues to help prevent suicide.

Students in the Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics were motivated by the increasing severity of the mental health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since social media platforms like Reddit are accessible, convenient, and anonymous, more users candidly express feelings about their own mental health issues,” said Shailik Sarkar, first author on “Predicting Depression and Anxiety on Reddit: a Multi-task Learning Approach.

Typically, research on the Reddit platform would employ the subreddit name, such as r/Anxiety, r/Depression, or r/SuicideWatch, to detect the type of the post and the nature of the mental health issues that correlate to the post.

But the multi-label classification data set designed by the Virginia Tech researchers does not overly rely on the subreddit topic chosen by the user because someone posting in the r/Anxiety subreddit could also be suffering from other mental health conditions such as depression, sleep disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Their unique model extracts the words and phrases used in a post and assigns them a score corresponding to each topic that applies.

For example, words and phrases such as “meds,” “panic attacks,” “often,” “taking,” and “worrying” could suggest anxiety, while “struggling,” “therapist,” “don’t want,” “need,” and “anymore” could indicate depression.

“Reddit posts can be longer than other social media posts, especially when pertaining to mental health discussion, so there is a very good chance that the same post will fall into different categories,” said Sarkar. “Insights into the kind of language used by those suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses can be of great benefit to social workers and mental health practitioners. A better understanding of those under their care may help prevent incidents of suicide.”

Sarkar’s collaborators are fellow students Abdulaziz Alhamadani and Lulwah AlKulaib, and Chang-Tien Lu, professor of computer science and associate director of the Sanghani Center.

“Our research with Reddit – which always adheres to privacy and anonymity of users – demonstrates how the lack of unlabeled data or benchmark data set can be tackled by using active learning and can help inform other data scientists who are interested in human-centered computing or social media data mining,” said Lu.

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Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.