NYT: Social Media May Offer Avenues of Mental Health Disease Recognition & Treatment

February 25, 2012
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I am not an aficianado of Facebook, though I do realize its appeal among the social media faithful — within and outside the discipline of medicine. Don’t get me wrong. I am also a champion of social media in medicine. The physicians who have been early adopters of this medium as a method of advancing the delivery of healthcare quality to patients, other healthcare providers, and the general public are to be commended for their foresight in arriving at this point in its intersection with health care.

I am not an aficianado of Facebook, though I do realize its appeal among the social media faithful — within and outside the discipline of medicine. Don’t get me wrong. I am also a champion of social media in medicine. The physicians who have been early adopters of this medium as a method of advancing the delivery of healthcare quality to patients, other healthcare providers, and the general public are to be commended for their foresight in arriving at this point in its intersection with health care.

The pervasive nature of Facebook, for example, cannot be denied. Its influence has almost singlehandedly modified and modeled what I see are the new norms of society, at least from a evolutionary sociological standpoint. Perhaps, therein lies its power. Does it really drive — or merely reflect — human behavior and (virtual) interpersonal relationships? The windows into the human psyche that are gleaned from the Facebook post seem to be more prescient by the day, and this has got some researchers and physicians taking note.

[S]pecialists in adolescent medicine and mental health experts say that dark postings should not be hastily dismissed because they can serve as signs of depression and an early warning system for timely intervention.

Can Facebook postings offer clues of the presence of depression before a trained mental health professional is able to spot them? According to a study conducted at the Universities of Washington and Wisconsin, it was shown that 30 percent of 200 students studied posted updates that met the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for a symptom of depression.

“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, a principal investigator in the Facebook studies and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While one can see the potential for intervention in this increasingly important therapeutic space, questions and issues arise, accelerating the need for more study on the usefulness of social media as a diagnostic tool and treatment realm for mental illness. To that end, Facebook has stepped up its game, partnering with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in addressing mental healthcare delivery in this crucial treatment space. As social medial becomes more and more vital to society, there will be the growing need to safely use it as both a tool for identifying and treating a challenging set of disorders that, until now, was limited in scope.