Reddit study evaluates campus mental health

Munmun De Choudhury
Photo courtesy of Institute Communications

Mental health issues are often far more difficult to diagnose and treat than traditional illnesses; they can be difficult to spot, chronic and seemingly unmanageable. With the stress of difficult coursework as well as newfound independence, students on college campuses often struggle heavily with mental health.

In a recent study from Munmun De Choudhury, an assistant professor in Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, she and her colleagues went to Reddit in order to assess the mental health of Tech students and those at over 100 other universities.

“I am very intrigued by the challenge of ensuring that people are happy and healthy,” De Choudhury said. “We are trying to develop new kinds of computing techniques to help detect risk markers of mental health challenges in people.”

The research group chose Reddit because of its forum-like structure and its increasing popularity in recent years. The group combed through five years’ worth of data on each university’s associated subreddit threads with a method called inductive transfer learning.

A data mining model was used to first scan threads about depression, trauma tools and other mental health issues in order to be able to distinguish the patterns of conversation that occur when people discuss mental health. The model was then used on the subreddits of 109 universities and institutions to identify the frequency and depth of discussions about mental health in the online communities and to create a “Mental Well-Being Index” in order to quantify this amount. The higher the index, the better the mental health is of the students there.

“We wanted to understand the general mental health climate,” De Choudhury said. “There are few places on the internet where students come together to talk about academic and non-academic issues.”

According to De Choudhury, another reason for the study is a lack of awareness among students about places they can go for help. She wanted to show that there are resources that students at Tech, and elsewhere, can use if they need help. One of these places might even be their social media websites.

Several key findings presented themselves when the study concluded. The first was the general trend that expression and discussion of mental health is becoming increasingly frequent as time passes.

“Reddit is not a therapeutic place; it is very casual. But there is a sense of peer support,” De Choudhury said. “It can be fairly anonymous, so it helps students to talk about things in a place where they won’t be shamed or judged.”

In addition, the well-being index was lower at large, public universities with large undergraduate student bodies. The study says that these colleges contain more students who are first in their families to attend an institute of higher education, which might contribute to feelings of pressure to succeed.

Th e index was calculated to be higher at universities with higher tuition, or that are considered especially prestigious. De Choudhury theorizes that the students that attend such universities might have a stronger financial background, or that students simply do not talk about their mental health challenges due to internalization of these struggles.

Much of De Choudhury’s previous research centers around both mental health and social media as well.

“For the last few years, I have worked together with social scientists, clinicians and others trying to see how we can use big data that is gathered from the internet to help answer some big questions,” De Choudhury said. “How can we help people through this whole experience?” De Choudhury’s future research will focus on the development of tools within social media and technology that improve assessment of campus morale and response to difficult situations.

De Choudhury encourages students to utilize the resources that are available to them. She recommends the list of mental health resources at .