In Awards and Achievements, School of Communications

Professor Brubaker and her graduate students found that Twitter users were able to build their own supportive community during the early stages of the pandemic

As we begin to reopen after a year of shutdowns and quarantine, examination of the effects of the last year of isolation is on everyone’s mind. Comms professor Pamela Brubaker and her graduate students believed this offered the perfect opportunity to research how social media sites influenced our communication about mental health.

“The COVID-19 pandemic, complete with stay-at-home orders and social distancing, took a toll on mental health,” said Brubaker in an interview. “This research project was driven by a desire to understand how people were dealing with mental health issues during the pandemic and learn what organizations can do to better leverage online discussion platforms, like Twitter, for communicating mental health information.”

Such a niche topic was the perfect fit for graduate students Jesse King, Audrey Halversen, Olivia Morrow and Whitney Westhoff. “I love working with graduate students,” Brubaker said. “It’s always fun to help students explore the world and discover answers to relevant media questions on issues that are facing us today.” 

Their research resulted in a paper that won the Boston University Award of Excellence this year. The paper focused on discussions about mental health during the start of the pandemic, between January and April 2020, on Twitter. Brubaker and her students found that Twitter users formed their own online support community to find connection during a time of sudden total disconnect.

“Twitter users provided informational and emotional support to those who were struggling, especially for those who were in isolation experiencing exacerbated mental health issues,” Brubaker observed. “As cases of COVID-19 increased, conversations that referenced depression, PTSD and psychologists increased as well. People became more aware of their need for psychological help as well as their own personal difficulties with social isolation.”

Brubaker and her students also found that as the death count from COVID-19 increased during the year, so too did posts that referenced psychologists. This observation, the team noticed, suggests that the public discovered an increased need to seek out help from experts or share expert advice as their own need to cope with COVID-19 conditions increased.

“This study demonstrates that Twitter users in the U.S. were able to connect during the COVID-19 pandemic and provide mental health support,” Brubaker remarked. “It is possible that without access to social networking sites it would have been more difficult for a public to coalesce around a niche topic such as mental health.”

Now, over a year after the first cases and deaths from COVID-19 were first reported, Brubaker and her students hope that this shared global experience will prove to have a positive effect on how we address mental health in the future. 

“Not everyone actively reaches out and seeks help when they are struggling,” Brubaker said. “We have a responsibility to actively use social media to lift others by regularly offering kind words and expressions of gratitude. Our online actions can go a long way in uplifting others, whether or not we are in a pandemic.”

Brubaker’s paper will soon appear in the IPRRC proceedings and is currently under review at a journal.

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