Facebook Provides Clues to Mental Health

Facebook is useful for many things. Some like to catch up with old high school or college classmates, while others use it to raise awareness for a particular cause like autism or breast cancer. Still more postings are aimed at trying to change opinions about politics. A status update can do many things.

One unexpected benefit of Facebook may help screen for mental disorders that would otherwise go unnoticed. People often post statements in their Facebook status that they might not say out loud to a friend, but they feel safe posting it online.

A new study provides insight into how Facebook may hold clues to the mental health of its users. Those who post statements that offer clues to a possible case of depression may be detected and treated before the problem gets worse.

The research team analyzed the status updates published by 200 undergraduates at the University of Washington. The updates, posted between 2009 and 2010, showed that of the students, 25 percent met criteria for depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association. The researchers noted that there was a pattern in these students of hopelessness, depressed mood, sleep difficulties, worthlessness.

Other studies have shown that depression is on the rise for college students. In the past six years, there has been a 56 percent increase in the number of college students who report that they suffer from depression. Between 30 and 40 percent of the students have a serious form of depression, but only about 10 percent look for help.

The researchers say that the opportunities offered by social networking sites to screen for and treat depression are important. Because so many students go untreated, the use of social sites like Facebook may provide a new way to connect students with the help that they need.

One possible challenge, however, is identifying which status updates indicate a symptom of depression, and which ones are just an individual expressing a momentary frustration or other emotion.

Even so, Facebook status updates offer an additional way to communicate and identify depressive symptoms. Some doctors may see it as an opportunity to help their patients stay in contact. Mental health providers are able to check in with patients via social networking sites and identify when a patient may need additional help.

While this aspect of social networking may be a way to help keep in touch with patients, some may be hesitant to interact in this way with their doctors. However, it may be an important resource for helping patients stay healthy.

Because 90 percent of students are on Facebook, this study identifies an important way to screen students for mental disorders like depression. Future research may include an examination comparing the interpretation of status updates with the reported symptoms experienced by the Facebook user.