Can Facebook Updates Predict Depression Ahead of Doctors?

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We all have friends that post ambiguous, leading or confessional posts on Facebook. Often, they're plain irritating—but could they be used to spot mental health problems ahead of trained clinicians?


A report in the New York Times suggests that specialists in adolescent mental health believe that dark status updates shouldn't simply be ignored, but used as early warning signs of depression.

During a research study run last year at the University of Washington, 30 percent of 200 students posted updates that met the American Psychiatric Association's criteria for a symptom of depression, "reporting feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, insomnia or sleeping too much, and difficulty concentrating" according to the NYT.

"You can identify adolescents and young adults on Facebook who are showing signs of being at risk, who would benefit from a clinical visit for screening," said Dr. Megan A. Moreno, one of the researchers, to the NYT.

But the problem is sifting the signal from the noise: which status updates really point to problems, and which are harmless? At the moment, it's still difficult to tell.

Regardless, clinicians are beginning to use updates as a complement to their usual practice. Dr. Gregory T. Eells, director of Cornell's counseling and psychological services, said to the NYT:

"People do post very distressing things. Sometimes they're just letting off steam, using Facebook as something between a diary and an op-ed piece. But sometimes we'll tell the team, ‘check in on this person.' "


Obviously, tentative steps are required when using Facebook to help with diagnosis of mental illness, and often time clinicians might be dealing with false positives. But when a person's future health—or even their life—is at stake, false positives aren't, perhaps, too much of a problem. While analyzing Facebook statuses will never replace human intervention, it might stop diagnoses slipping through the net. [New York Times]



Generally speaking, I'm dubious of this sort of thing; there are too many ways to get false positives from Facebook posts. Somebody with a penchant for quoting obscure movies or foreign songs might lead clinicians to think that they're slitting their wrists as they type.

With that said, I'm actually really glad Cornell is doing this. Taking preventative steps to catch overstressed or otherwise distressed students is so much better than some of the more ham-handed approaches to prevent suicides that they've tried in the past. Last time I was on campus, I found that most of the gorge overlooks and bridges had chain-link fences surrounding them... which, sure, would make it tougher for someone to impulsively jump, but talk about treating the symptom and not the problem.