Wednesday, June 19Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Mental Health and the Pandemic – What Machine Learning Can Tell Us

James Bowers

Over the course of the pandemic, we have had to make plenty of sacrifices for our own physical health, and the physical health of others. But, as research from MIT and Harvard University shows, many people’s mental health has also suffered as a result.

Using machine learning, researchers from the two universities conducted a textual analysis of over 800,000 messages posted onto the social media platform, Reddit. The study showed that during the first wave of Covid-19 from January to April, significant changes occurred to the tone and content of users’ language, with discussions ranging from anxiety to suicide all on the rise.

At the heart of the study, the researchers were particularly interested in how certain sub-groups of people reacted to the pandemic in comparison to others. This made Reddit the perfect platform to source a data set from, as users can choose to be part of different ‘subreddits’ – effectively online communities based around a specific topic or theme. 

In total, fifteen subreddit groups were analysed, including support groups for mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia, as well as non-medical topics like personal finance or parenting. The researchers then used language processing algorithms to measure how often certain types of negative content arose. 

Overall, the subgroups who appeared worst affected in the study were those who suffered from ADHD or eating disorders, or who were under a lot of economic stress. The researchers hypothesized that lockdown was key to this trend, with the closure of businesses and loss of jobs adding to people’s financial woes, while quarantining measures led to the breakdown of face-to-face support groups. Those with anorexia, for example, reported significantly increased instances of relapse as the people who typically watched over their eating habits were no longer there. 

Perhaps the most stark finding from the study, however, was that the general frequency of suicide-related messages more than doubled in comparison to pre-pandemic levels. The researchers acknowledge that they don’t have enough evidence to blame this solely on the pandemic itself, but are keen to point out the significant increase in suicidal content compared to the same January-April period in previous years, therefore effectively ruling out natural annual trends as an explanation. 

Now, as we head into a second lockdown, these same social and economic challenges will arise once more. The combination of isolation and economic strain is likely to result in a bleak month of quarantine for many people in the UK, while those of us unfortunate enough to have toxic home lives may also fear what is to come. In the previous lockdown period for example, the rate of domestic abuse calls in the UK rose by 49%, according to The Guardian.

However, it is important to remember that there is still help out there for those who need it. If you’re struggling this winter, or if you know of somebody in need, here are some useful contacts to provide essential support over the coming weeks:

  • Anxiety UK: 03444 775 774, or head to their website at
  • CALM, for men aged 15-35: 0800 58 58 58
  • MIND: 0300 123 3393
  • PAPYRUS, young suicide prevention society: 0800 068 4141
  • Samaritans: 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline)
  • SANE, support via text message can be found at:
  • Refuge, for domestic violence: 0808 2000 247
  • Drinkline, for those suffering with alcohol addiction: 0300 123 1110
  • Beat, for help with eating disorders: 0808 801 0677