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Social media, suicide risk and support


Amanda Lyons


18/09/2018 3:16:44 PM

There is significant concern regarding people posting about suicide on social media. But what if such posts could be used to identify at-risk people and give them the help they need?

Researcher Dr Bridianne O’Dea would like to see the capabilities of social media harnessed to help identify and assist people with high risk of suicide.
Researcher Dr Bridianne O’Dea would like to see the capabilities of social media harnessed to help identify and assist people with high risk of suicide.

The rise of social media has been accompanied by concerns about its effects on mental health, particularly for young people, many of whom have grown up knowing only a socially mediated world.
 
But according to Dr Bridianne O’Dea, Research Fellow at the Black Dog Institute, social media can also be helpful in designing interventions and assistance for issues of mental health.
 
‘One of the greatest advantages of social media platforms is that they’re used worldwide by hundreds of thousands of people, and their purpose is to share thoughts, feelings and actions in a natural setting,’ she told newsGP.
 
‘That gives us real-time insight about what people may be doing or feeling.’
 
There has been controversy around how much personal information people share on social media, which can include posts containing suicide threats or self-harm. But there is not yet much research about the implications of such posting.
 
‘There are a lot of unanswered questions,’ Dr O’Dea said. ‘We don’t know if sharing these thoughts and feelings is helpful for the user, or unhelpful. We don’t know if sharing this content has a contagion effect.
 
‘And we only have initial evidence around how people are responding, and whether [posting on social media] is a helpful or unhelpful method of providing care or intervening.’

Suicide-and-social-media-text.jpgSocial media can provide real-time insight about what people may be thinking or feeling.
 
Dr O’Dea’s current research with the Black Dog Institute uses data from a specific platform, Twitter, to examine these questions, and also to explore whether social media can be used in suicide prevention.
 
‘We have been investigating ways we can identify people who need help for suicidal thinking or actions on social media without directly contacting them,’ Dr O’Dea said.
 
The first step involved identifying and coding words and phrases commonly used on Twitter among people with suicidal thoughts that are also recognised as signals of high risk and need for intervention.
 
‘There is a body of research into how linguistic expression, so not what you say but how you say it, can be used to infer [regarding] your mental health,’ Dr O’Dea explained.
 
‘So we looked at the linguistics features amongst these types of Twitter posts, compared them to non-suicide related Twitter posts, and found that these type of people had very unique ways of expressing themselves.
 
‘By monitoring for these expressive features, we could actually determine some degree of suicide risk.
 
‘There had also been research showing that a person’s network, so their friends and followers, are in a good position to determine whether their posts are of genuine concern.
 
‘We hypothesised that if a person’s networks deemed a post to be serious, they would respond more quickly.
 
‘So we collected a whole bunch of Twitter posts that were suicide-related, as well as their first replies, and we analysed the time taken [to respond].’
 
The results from the analysis of first replies were encouraging, with a median time of 3.8 minutes to reply to a suicide-related post, which is significantly faster than the median 59-minute reply time to general posts.
 
More than 80% of suicide-related posts received one reply or more. Whether or not a post received a reply was not determined by the number of a poster’s friends or followers.
 
However, the research revealed one important aspect to be missing in these interactions – the provision of advice, guidance or useful information to people posting suicide-related posts.
 
The next step in Dr O’Dea’s research is looking into how platforms such as Twitter could be harnessed to provide this type of support on an automatic basis, as well as education to counteract harmful attitudes toward suicide.
 
‘There may be subtle ways to automatically deliver that information,’ she said.
 
‘Our research is showing that, while you can rely on members of the Twitter network to respond appropriately, some people will still unfortunately receive an unhelpful response and there is a potential that we can counteract that.’
 
Dr O’Dea believes that such constructive interventions may help to enhance the positive aspects of social media.
 
‘It’s increasingly acceptable for people to use these platforms as a way to share how they are feeling and seek help,’ she said. ‘And we know from some of the very early research in Facebook that they are ideal settings and can offer a greater network for the exchange of informational support.
 
‘More recent research shows that when you use social media platforms to share how you are feeling and receive an appropriate response back, it can lower your distress and improve how you are feeling.
 
‘So we really need to look at, how can we increase that, and how can we educate social media users so the majority of the interactions that are happening on there are helpful in reducing distress rather than increasing it?’



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