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New Study: Mental Health in the UK Research

By Edward Crook on October 26th 2017

Here at Brandwatch we have a powerful tool for measuring online discourse and a world-class team of social researchers. We’ve put these two assets to use in a new study on mental health in the UK, focused on challenging stigma and tackling barriers to treatment.

We partnered with charity Ditch The Label to understand mental health in the digital age. Using a corpus of more than 12 million conversations, this is the first study of its kind and gives an entirely new view of the shape of mental health in the UK.

We all have mental health (MH), but for many people problems with MH are a daily reality. Almost one in four adults experiences MH problems in any given year, and around one in six meets criteria for common mental health conditions. Gender and wealth impact both your chances of experiencing these and your chance of accessing help.

 

Mental health in the UK: what did we find?

  • Bullying is a measurable catalyst for mental health symptoms. Bullying is most strongly associated with eating disorders, anxiety and body image. For those with mental health conditions, bullying increases references of self-harm by more than 600%.
  • Lack of emotional openness may be a barrier to accessing help. UK authors have more negative attitudes towards crying than their US counterparts, and some demographics are particularly prone to pejorative mental health language. MH insults were more common in Wales and among students and sports fans. Negative attitudes towards MH and emotional expression may prevent those experiencing bullying and symptoms from accessing treatment.

mental health in the UK chart

  • For those who do not access treatment, symptoms escalate at a faster rate. Post treatment, authors showed greater understanding and worked constructively toward symptom management. Among those without treatment, tone grew more severely negative over time, highlighting need for early access.

  • ‘Risk’ symptoms vary throughout the UK. Sleep disruption over-indexed in Scotland, body image in central/north England and NI and fatigue in the south of England. Appetite change over-indexed in London.
  • Political events cause widespread sleep disruption. The EU referendum and the general election correlated significantly with sleep disruption in the UK. This disruption may cause ‘trigger events’, negatively impacting those with underlying symptoms.

Why is this study different?

  • Qualitative insight at quantitative scale. We’ve analysed almost 13 million public conversations, vastly more than would be possible with a traditional survey or focus group. But behind each of these 13 million data points is a tweet, post or comment thread that gives rich insight into public attitudes and experiences.
  • Unsolicited data. We’ve reduced demand effects and observer bias by using a pool of unsolicited data. In other words, we’ve looked at publicly shared data rather than asking survey questions (which can skew responses). This also allows us to understand how people relate to symptoms as they experience them, rather than from memory or hypothetically.
  • Repeat measures design. We created ‘at risk’ author panels who described chronic or multiple symptoms, and followed their MH experiences longitudinally. This allows us to track patient journeys over time and compare those who do and do not describe accessing treatment. All author data in the study has been aggregated and anonymised.

Does social media negatively impact mental health?

In a recent Guardian article, Matt Haig makes a strong argument for the negative impact of social media on MH. This argument commonly depicts social media as a magnifying glass, concentrating the rays of social pressure. “If we can accept that our physical health can be shaped by society”, explains Haig, “by secondhand smoke or a bad diet – then we must accept that our mental health can be too”.

There is growing evidence for this pressure effect. In 2016, researchers at UCLA found social media likes from strangers triggered the nucleus accumbens, part of the brain’s reward system that is particularly sensitive in adolescence. In other words, social networks may add extra strain to users’ mental health and sense of self.

However, our study also found social media being used for social good. Events such as Mental Health Awareness Week drove peaks and more people are getting involved in the conversation. APMS studies show that access to MH care is improving overall. In 2007, 24% of those with mental health problems were accessing care. By 2014 this had grown to 37%.

Mental health in the UK: body dysmorphia

We also found online networks being used to supplement offline treatment. Among those experiencing body dysmorphia, online sharing was the second most-mentioned treatment (10%) behind therapy (12%). Patients use online networks to better understand their conditions, build a sense of community and gain peer support.

How can this research be used?

This study contains important findings for policy-makers, brands, social network owners, NGOs and medical professionals.

While sites are being used as valuable support networks, it’s important to ensure authors are reaching out to professionals where necessary. For eating disorder discussion, we found that demand for online advice outweighs supply, suggesting need for additional tailored support. There is an argument that brands and social networks, which may inadvertently add to the pressure effect, have a responsibility to address MH in campaign work.

There is also a need for greater awareness of and support for BDD. Body dysmorphia saw the largest shares of ‘anger’, ‘stress’ and ‘struggling’ tones and sufferers felt the condition was misrepresented in the media. Educators, health practitioners and journalists were all underrepresented, suggesting need for further education among both professions and the general public.

While access to MH care may be improving overall, this varies across demographics. Authors were also far more likely to seek treatment for risk symptoms associated with physical health such as appetite change (62%) and chronic pain (60%) than MH symptoms such as anxiety (25%) and body image (20%).

Authors experiencing bullying were less likely to identify their symptoms as MH-related, posing an additional barrier to care. HCPs should be mindful that patients may describe MH symptoms in purely physical terms.

Further research is also needed into the impact of ‘trigger’ events. Our research found, for example, a significant link between the EU referendum and sleep disruption. For those with underlying conditions, this type of event may trigger or worsen MH symptoms.

While signs of progress are evident in the research, the study also highlights obstacles and need for further input from organisations. More authors are moving to sharing their MH experiences on social media. With this move comes a need and opportunity for both peer and professional support.

A full copy of the research paper on mental health in the UK can be found here.


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Edward Crook

@Brandwatch

Edward is Brandwatch Research Manager for NA & LATAM. Based in New York, he’s fascinated by networks, linguistics and #socialforgood