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Social media posts may provide early warning signs of psychosis

What do our tweets reveal about our mental state? And if we’re suffering, who can tell? 

Northwell Health researchers are looking at social media posts to decode the signs of mental illness. Currently, half of people with mental illness never get treatment, and those that do have a long delay before their first symptoms and diagnosis. According to a study of 21 states, people deal with untreated psychosis for nearly a year and a half on average.

quotation mark It may be possible to determine the likelihood of a psychosis relapse before it can be clinically detected.
Dr. Michael Birnbaum

Studying language patterns to reveal a developing psychosis relapse

“We have the opportunity to transform health care if we can learn how to take advantage of this tool,” says Michael Birnbaum, MD, director of Zucker Hillside’s Early Treatment Program and assistant investigator at the Center for Psychiatric Neuroscience at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research.

A pioneer in this field, Dr. Birnbaum and a team of researchers began by analyzing the linguistic structure of social media posts. They have since added additional variables, such as the time and frequency of posting, how patients engage others on the platform and the amount of information patients share or what they respond to. Specifically, they analyze the writing style of schizophrenic social media users to build a psychological profile. With this information, clinicians could have another tool to identify the first signs of a psychotic episode.

Uncovering patterns to predict mental illness

Their goal is to identify the beginnings of psychosis in young people — at its earliest stages. 

“Psychiatry is all about early intervention, outreach and engagement,” Dr. Birnbaum says. “The research suggests that by studying language patterns and social media usage, and monitoring changes in those areas, it may be possible to determine the likelihood of a psychosis relapse before it can be clinically detected. That is a huge differentiator that would benefit patients because it would enable an intervention before a psychiatric episode even occurred.”

In the digital age, secret expressions of psychological distress are constantly surrounding us, beaming from mobile devices and computers. How amazing would it be if, with a quick scroll or click, relief were immediately in sight?

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