How Social Media Can Help Tackle Depression

Robin Williams’ death last year left the world stunned. How can a man who had so much ‘going’ for him take his own life? How can a man who made millions laugh could not bring himself out of a seemingly ‘bad mood’? Williams was suffering from depression, a condition so debilitating that if left unchecked could lead an otherwise healthy person to commit suicide. The incident is a wake-up call for the healthcare community as it is predicted by WHO that depression is projected to become the second leading contributor to the global burden of disease by 2020. The event has certainly brought a lot of attention on the issue but I believe a lot more needs to be done. In this post I talk about how social media can play a role in addressing the condition.

A model created by Eric Horovitz , Data Scientist at Microsoft Research can detect and predict whether an individual will have depression based on his/her Twitter feed. Koko, a social network created for people with depression assists users to crowdsource help to combat negative thinking, one of the major symptoms of depression. While these are excellent initiatives, social media can be further leveraged. Here are some use cases that highlight how social media can augment traditional methods of tackling the condition:

  • Campaigns to educate: The stigma attached with mental illnesses has made it hard for people to talk about it openly. Creating awareness and establishing platforms to educate general public is the first step towards removing the stigma. Since social media has enormous reach it can be used to launch campaigns highlighting the myths, treatment options and help centres related with depression. For e.g. Twitter campaigns can be organized to encourage people including patients, family members, friends, doctors, psychologists to talk about their experiences. This open dialogue can not only help remove stigma but can also lead to previously unknown insights to deal with the condition.
  • Identify ideal treatment: According to WebMD there are multiple ways to treat depression. The choice of treatment depends on a number of factors such as type, stress, early life experiences, genetics etc. The perfect fit can be tailored if all the patient data is available. Medical reports, patient reported data has been traditionally available but the missing piece was patient behavioural data. Social platforms such as Koko would enable access to patient behavioural data that could deliver meaningful insights to create an ideal treatment plan.
  • Recruit patients for clinical trials: Despite massive efforts, CROs have failed to meet the patient recruitment target. One of the major barriers is that patients generally consider clinical trials risky and therefore do not enrol in them. With the advent and use of social media and the rise of e-Patients and e-caregivers we can easily overcome the barrier. This group of e-patients and e-caregivers are a new informed breed who is well aware of the risks/rewards of trails. They are 60% more likely to participate in trials and therefore social media websites can be a great tool to support trial recruitment.
  • New source for patient research: Patient blogs are a rich source of information that is not available elsewhere. Mining patient blogs (with the permission of the owner) can help discover unique behavioural patterns which could be a major boon to comparative effectiveness research and for public health.


In words of Robin Williams “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world”. What is your idea? How can social media change the way we deal with depression?


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