NHS hospitals see spike in mental health patients on days when tweets about the topic surge, a study shows.
Two London hospitals had up to 15 per cent more patients referred for a crisis episode or emergency on days when social media was rife with depression discussion.
The researchers said news stories about mental health are likely to be the main reason for a higher volume of tweets.
Celebrities often ‘come out’ and speak about their mental health ordeals, which is often hailed for opening difficult conversations, especially by mental health charities.
How this truly influences others is not understood. Interest in the topic heightened when Robin Williams’ suicide in 2014 saw a spike in suicides in the US.
The academics at King’s College London reported their findings today in the journal Scientific Reports.
The team collected data on the number of tweets containing keywords related to depression and schizophrenia over a four-year period.
During the same period, they took recorded referrals for ‘crisis episodes’ – when someone needs urgent care – to South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLAM) and Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust (C&I).
Between January 2010 and December 2014, 48,691 and 32,689 crisis episodes were recorded by SLAM and C&I, respectively.
On days with a higher than average number of tweets, SLAM saw up to 15 per cent more crisis episodes. C&I saw a five per cent increase.
The sizes of effects were large enough to have potential local and national relevance, the team, led by psychologist Dr Anna Kolliakou, said.
Co-author of the paper Professor Robert Stewart told MailOnline: ‘We had expected that there might be a link, because we do know that people with mental health difficulties find some material in the media quite distressing and stigmatising.
‘But were surprised that the link was so strong.
‘We checked a few of the spikes and they were all associated with a trending news story online.’
The researchers said it’s not possible to say tweets directly influence mental health referrals. Those experiencing a crisis may not even use Twitter.
Rather, it may news events themselves – such as a celebrity talking about their depression battles – affecting mental health, while also amplifying tweets.
The authors of the paper wrote: ‘A relationship has long been suspected between public events relating to mental health and personal crises in vulnerable populations hearing about these.
‘Increasing attention is being paid to the ways in which individuals’ mental health status can be inferred from material on social media.’
The authors said their observations were in line with previous studies.
A recent study found almost a 10 per cent increase in suicides in America in the six months following beloved actor Robin Williams’ suicide in 2014.
The researchers at Columbia University said Williams’ death was followed by more posts on the online forum ‘SuicideWatch’.
Not only did people resonate with the beloved actor, but it may have contributed to suicide ‘ideation’.
It has long been recognised that news events, as well as whats shown on TV, have mental-health related outcomes.
In 2017, the broadcast of the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why provoked debate about whether the glamorisation of a teenager’s suicide was damaging to young viewers.
Now, social media is another platform in which people are constantly exposed to breaking news, but with it, the public’s unfiltered views.
Dr Kolliakou and colleagues wrote: ‘Round-the-clock access to breaking news, stories and discussions as well as the sheer volume of decreasingly controlled information have transformed and amplified exposure to mental health dialogues and representations of mental illness.’
Commenting on the findings, leading mental health charity MIND said awareness about mental health – driven by celebrities, for example – is crucial.
Head of policy and campaigns Vicki Nash said: ‘Talking breaks down stigma. If we can’t name, understand and explain an issue, we can’t properly address it as a society.
‘We know that high-profile coverage of mental health problems, and especially when celebrities speak out about their own experiences on both traditional and social media, helps people feel less alone and can encourage people to seek the support they need.’
Niamh McDade, senior campaigns and communications executive at the Royal Society for Public Health, said: ‘Whilst studies such as these do identify some correlations between social media use and mental health and wellbeing, more robust scientific research is needed to determine to what extent social media actually causes mental health problems.’
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