mental health surveillance

Federal government funding effort to monitor twitter for signs of clinical depression.

“Major depressive disorder is one of the most common debilitating illnesses in the United States, with a lifetime prevalence of 16.2 [percent],” the project grant states. “Currently, nationwide mental health surveillance takes the form of large-scale telephone- based surveys.”

The project argues that Twitter is preferable to phone surveys on the mentally ill because the site offers a “multilingual source of real time data for public health surveillance.”

As someone who suffers from depression, I’m not reassured.

Having said that, the article title might be misleading. The National Institute of Health is evidently funding a program at the Univ of California at San Diego. Whether it constitutes “surveillance” is hard to know at this point, based on the article at least. It does say, however, that “They will also engage with depressed individuals on Twitter directly,” which was a bit disturbing.

If you’re new to this area and have never suffered depression, then good for you. Note that depression has nothing to do with “being depressed” in the way that most people use the term in non-technical social contexts, nor is feeling sad or disappointed particularly relevant in understanding this illness.

I don’t deny that I have intellectual curiosity with these sorts of studies, especially research which correlates word usage with personality and possible clinical disorder. Having said that, the possibility of adverse ramifications and/or abuse of this information (if study conclusions are linked back to real people) are immense.

In terms of helping people who suffer silently, the best approach is to provide helpful and anonymous outlets for those who need them rather than reaching them directly. Depressed adults know all is not well and no doubt want help, but various factors (cost and social stigma) might preclude reaching out. Reducing both will alleviate this problem. Remember that people who are depressed don’t “want to commit suicide,” they want help, but absent that help, depression can be a terminal illness. Having said that, “surveillance” of depression, if that is indeed what this is, will almost certainly increase the social stigma and be counterproductive.

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