Twitter a Tool for Mental Health Surveillance

by | Oct 28, 2013

computerMost people would agree that social media has made the world a different place.  Twitter and Facebook can be useful tools for communication.  Like most anything, both have good points and bad points.  It is fun for many to get to know their favorite celebrities via Twitter.  It is bad when Facebook is used for bullying.  Adding more to the list of bad points is a study now being done using Twitter as a tool for mental health surveillance.   
The National Institute of Health, a government agency, is funding a study being done by the University of California, San Diego.  The study is to see how Twitter can be used to monitor people for depression.  This is another misstep by the government and nothing short of ridiculous. 
We are all too familiar with how the Secret Service and Homeland Security have used Twitter in the interest of national security.  More recently, we all have been informed that our e-mails and phone calls have been monitored or recorded for the same reason.  There are different opinions about Big Brother watching us, but mental health surveillance is certainly not in the same league as national security when it comes to public safety issues.  It is being put forth that it is.  Depression and national security are not comparable.   
The study says it has “public health at its core.”  It is laughable to even consider this so.  Matters of public health are normally diseases that pose serious threats to the public or at the very least, giving information to the public to prevent disease and promote health.  The project grant states that major depressive disorder is one of the most debilitating illnesses in the United States, with over sixteen percent of people experiencing it.  What is the threat to the public?  How is depression going to be prevented?  How is mental health surveillance warranted here?  
Depression may be debilitating for some, but it is not even a real medical disease.  It is not on par with diabetes, cancer or heart disease.  Depression is a matter of the mind, not a matter of the brain or body.  Diabetes, cancer and heart disease are diagnosed by scientific tests.  There is no medical test of any kind for depression or any other “mental illness.”  A diagnosis results from an opinion alone.  Without any scientific backing, all that is being done is labeling a condition, not an illness or disease.   
With the above information in mind, then what purpose does mental health surveillance serve?  It certainly isn’t just to monitor the population and see how many people are showing “symptoms” of depression on Twitter.  The study states it will engage with those that show signs of depression.  This makes it obvious that the real purpose is to find new patients.  Currently, phone surveys are done, but only a limited amount of people can be reached by phone.   Clearly, they want to increase their customer pool and since Twitter is used by many millions of people, it is the right tool to contact a much larger portion of the population. 
Imagine tweeting some unhappy emotions due to some of life’s mishaps and out of nowhere you are contacted about your “depression.”  This brings up the question of accuracy in using mental health surveillance.  People communicate in random ways on social media, so what is said is extremely open to misinterpretation.  Despite technological advances, programs are generally quite literal in interpretation, so how is depression going to be accurately recognized?  What words are going to be the red flags? 
When you are talking about the word depression, people can mean a variety of things.  They actually could be unhappy at various times, but a string of isolated instances is not an indication of depression.  People could say they are not happy about something and not be experiencing depression.  Comments can be taken out of context.  What if one is talking about an economic depression which is quite common these days?  Or what if someone is just expressing their frustration by saying they are depressed about the new health care exchanges online, which the government has failed to provide easy access?  
This mental health surveillance study will be another failure in terms of accuracy just like the Teen Screen program.  Teen Screen was a suicide prevention program for teenagers that shut down at the end of last year.  Its survey questions were geared to deem any teenager suicidal.  The student would then be referred to a mental health service and put on mind-altering drugs.  This mental health surveillance study is the beginning of the same thing:  putting people on mind-altering drugs.  Whether you call it surveillance or monitoring or screening, it’s all the same dangerous can of worms. 
SSRI antidepressants are the most common form of treatment for depression.  They have serious adverse side effects such as increased risk of violence and suicide.  Society doesn’t need mental health surveillance as psychotropic drugs don’t prevent or help any mental condition.  With such severe adverse side effects, they only harm.   
If you look at the majority of mass shootings that have increasingly taken place over the past many years, those pulling the trigger were either on psychotropic drugs or withdrawing from them.  Now that is a public health issue.  The money for the study would be better spent on exploring the link between antidepressants and violence. 
In the meantime, be careful of what you say on social media to avoid being caught in the psychiatric net.  If you aren’t doing well, talk directly to someone you trust and avoid the public forum as it’s possible you are under mental health surveillance.


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