Harnessing reddit to understand the written-communication challenges experienced by individuals with mental health disorders: Analysis of texts from mental health communities

Albert Park, Mike Conway

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Background: Mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are common, incapacitating, and have the potential to be fatal. Despite the prevalence and gravity of mental disorders, our knowledge concerning everyday challenges associated with them is relatively limited. One of the most studied deficits related to everyday challenges is language impairment, yet we do not know how mental disorders can impact common forms of written communication, for example, social media. Objective: The aims of this study were to investigate written communication challenges manifest in online mental health communities focusing on depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, as well as the impact of participating in these online mental health communities on written communication. As the control, we selected three online health communities focusing on positive emotion, exercising, and weight management. Methods: We examined lexical diversity and readability, both important features for measuring the quality of writing. We used four well-established readability metrics that consider word frequencies and syntactic complexity to measure writers' written communication ability. We then measured the lexical diversity by calculating the percentage of unique words in posts. To compare lexical diversity and readability among communities, we first applied pairwise independent sample t tests, followed by P value adjustments using the prespecified Hommel procedure to adjust for multiple comparison. To measure the changes, we applied linear least squares regression to the readability and lexical diversity scores against the interaction sequence for each member, followed by pairwise independent sample t tests and P value adjustments. Given the large sample of members, we also report effect sizes and 95% CIs for the pairwise comparisons. Results: On average, members of depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia communities showed indications of difficulty expressing their ideas compared with three other online health communities. Our results also suggest that participating in these platforms has the potential to improve members' written communication. For example, members of all three mental health communities showed statistically significant improvement in both lexical diversity and readability compared with members of the OHC focusing on positive emotion. Conclusions: We provide new insights into the written communication challenges faced by individuals suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. A comparison with three other online health communities suggests that written communication in mental health communities is significantly more difficult to read, while also consisting of a significantly less diverse lexicon. We contribute practical suggestions for utilizing our findings in Web-based communication settings to enhance members' communicative experience. We consider these findings to be an important step toward understanding and addressing everyday written communication challenges among individuals suffering from mental disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere121
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Bipolar
  • Bipolar
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Communications media
  • Community networks
  • Consumer health information
  • Depression
  • Depressive disorder
  • Depressive disorder
  • Informatics
  • Information science
  • Major
  • Mental health
  • Other psychotic disorders
  • Psychosocial support system
  • Related disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Schizophrenia spectrum
  • Schizotypal personality disorder
  • Self-help groups
  • Social support


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