Using Facebook to Identify Depressed and Suicidal People

Woman on a laptopMADISON - Facebook could be valuable at helping identify people who may be depressed and perhaps on the verge of suicide, according to research by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and School of Pharmacy.


However, the findings also stress that Facebook should not be used as a substitute for clinical screening and medical treatment for people who are depressed or suicidal.

The study is the first of its kind to determine a connection between social-networking sites and identification of mental-health issues. The investigators analyzed the Facebook profiles of 200 college sophomores and juniors.

Results showed that 25 percent of the students displayed one or more references to depression symptoms.

These references included decreased interest or pleasure in activities, change in appetite, sleep problems, loss of energy, and feelings of guilt and worthlessness. None of the students in this study expressed suicidal thoughts.

According to Dr. Megan Moreno, a pediatrician, assistant professor at the School of Medicine and Public Health and lead author of the study, many of these students received encouragement from their Facebook friends on the Facebook page, who asked how they could help resolve their problems.

"People are getting support from other Facebook users when they display these comments, so it may be used as a mini-support group for depression," she says. "Given the frequency of depression symptoms displayed, it's possible that depression disclosures on Facebook may actually help to reduce the stigma around mental illness."

The findings also indicated that 2.5 percent of profiles displayed enough information to merit screening for depression.

Moreno adds that while Facebook should not be used to formally diagnose depression, it may be valuable in identifying students who are contemplating suicide and help them receive needed treatment.

"Recent media reports indicated planned suicides that were displayed on Facebook before being carried out," she said. "This highlights the urgent need to understand how often depression is displayed on Facebook and what this may mean. Early identification of depression may be easier now if you see repeated references on Facebook."

The findings come on the cusp of a clinical report released today by the American Academy of Pediatrics that recommends pediatricians and parents take a more active role in monitoring their children's use of social-networking sites and ask questions concerning displays of sexual innuendo, drug and alcohol use, bullying, depression and social anxiety. The report also suggests pediatricians increase their knowledge of digital technology so they can properly diagnose issues involving risky behaviors shown on social-networking sites. 

Date Published: 03/28/2011

News tag(s):  megan a moreno

News RSS Feed