Twitter Reflects Reality, at Least About Suicide

Suicide tweets mirror state suicide rates.

Posted Jan 29, 2014

When I worked at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, we received many calls asking for the latest data on suicide. It was always a disappointment to callers when the latest data were three years old.

So, in 2009, I'd share data from 2006. Yes, the data were helpful in thinking about some aspects of the big picture of suicide in the U.S.—which states had the highest and lowest rates, which parts of the population were dying by suicide more than others.

But, something big happened between 2006 and 2009 that the "latest" data couldn't account for: The economy went into a downward spiral. People wanted to know: Is the economy having an impact on suicide rates?

We didn't know. And, I had to tell them, we wouldn't know for three years.

That isn't to say that we didn't know something about how the economy might be affecting suicide risk, which populations might be more vulnerable, and what kinds of things could be done to mitigate risk. But, the process by which data are analyzed takes a long time, longer than it should for such an important issue. There was a palpable sense of frustration on the other end of the phone. Why does it take so long?

A recent finding by researchers at Brigham Young University offers a very modern kind of hope.

Twitter, it seems, may provide a proxy measure for suicide rates.

States with a higher proportion of people tweeting about suicide are states that have higher-than-average suicide rates. The opposite seems to hold true as well—states with lower proportions of people tweeting about suicide have lower-than-average suicide rates.

Twitter is providing real-time data about suicide risk, which is something that those of us thinking about the implications of social media for suicide prevention can get pretty excited about.

I've thought about how social media can provide opportunities for one-on-one intervention, social support, and even social movements. This new area of research shows the promise of social media for public health research, a tool for better understanding behavior, examining trends, and accessing large amounts of data about a wide range of people.

Equally interesting is the idea that social media—or at least Twitter—may offer a reflection of reality that is more true than perhaps suspected. Are there other health topics about which social media could help design solutions? And what new ideas could be generated with such quick access to a robust data source?

Social media have changed how we communicate, how we perceive and present ourselves, and now how we conceptualize the ideas of data, research, and validity. These new realities make a three-year wait for data seem like a really, really long time.