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Posting patterns in peer online support forums and their associations with emotions and mood in bipolar disorder: Exploratory analysis

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Article numbere0291369
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>25/09/2023
<mark>Journal</mark>PLoS One
Issue number9
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Background: Mental health (MH) peer online forums offer robust support where internet access is common, but healthcare is not, e.g., in countries with under-resourced MH support, rural areas, and during pandemics. Despite their widespread use, little is known about who posts in such forums, and in what mood states. The discussion platform Reddit is ideally suited to study this as it hosts forums (subreddits) for MH and non-MH topics. In bipolar disorder (BD), where extreme mood states are core defining features, mood influences are particularly relevant. Objectives: This exploratory study investigated posting patterns of Reddit users with a self-reported BD diagnosis and the associations between posting and emotions, specifically: 1) What proportion of the identified users posts in MH versus non-MH subreddits? 2) What differences exist in the emotions that they express in MH or non-MH subreddit posts? 3) How does mood differ between those users who post in MH subreddits compared to those who only post in non-MH subreddits? Methods: Reddit users were automatically identified via self-reported BD diagnosis statements and all their 2005–2019 posts were downloaded. First, the percentages of users who posted only in MH (non-MH) subreddits were calculated. Second, affective vocabulary use was compared in MH versus non-MH subreddits by measuring the frequency of words associated with positive emotions, anxiety, sadness, anger, and first-person singular pronouns via the LIWC text analysis tool. Third, a logistic regression distinguished users who did versus did not post in MH subreddits, using the same LIWC variables (measured from users’ non-MH subreddit posts) as predictors, controlling for age, gender, active days, and mean posts/day. Results: 1) Two thirds of the identified 19,685 users with a self-reported BD diagnosis posted in both MH and non-MH subreddits. 2) Users who posted in both MH and non-MH subreddits exhibited less positive emotion but more anxiety and sadness and used more first-person singular pronouns in their MH subreddit posts. 3) Feminine gender, higher positive emotion, anxiety, and sadness were significantly associated with posting in MH subreddits. Conclusions: Many Reddit users who disclose a BD diagnosis use a single account to discuss MH and other concerns. Future work should determine whether users exhibit more anxiety and sadness in their MH subreddit posts because they more readily post in MH subreddits when experiencing lower mood or because they feel more able to express negative emotions in these spaces. MH forums may reflect the views of people who experience more extreme mood (outside of MH subreddits) compared to people who do not post in MH subreddits. These findings can be useful for MH professionals to discuss online forums with their clients. For example, they may caution them that forums may underrepresent people living well with BD.