Using Social Media to Engage At-Risk Veterans in Mental Health Treatment

Award Type: Research Grant & New Investigator Grant
Funding Agency: Collins Medical Trust & Medical Research Foundation of Oregon
Role on Project: Principal Investigator

Young adults use social media to maintain contact with core social contacts, display and reference their own symptoms of depression, and receive support from friends. Suicidal individuals spend significant amounts of time on social media sites. And if social media is used well, it may be able to promote positive mental health outcomes, including self-esteem, social support, treatment engagement, and less loneliness and depression.

With U.S. combat involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq now longer than in any previous American war, we face a dire need to support a large, vulnerable population of military veterans. These young veterans often struggle with the transition from military to civilian life, citing the loss of a military identity and difficulty developing new social support systems in the civilian world after having spent long or multiple deployments in a warzone. Social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, may be prudent in engaging and helping Veterans. In this project our goal is to explore Facebook and understand how it's use can impact Veterans.

Why a social media approach?
Social support from one’s social network is a critical protective factor against deleterious mental health outcomes. Social support is multidimensional and can include emotional (e.g., expressions of caring), informational (e.g., direct suggestions or information on treatment options), and appraisal (e.g., offering feedback that empowers one to make a decision) help. Social support buffers against a variety of mental and physical illnesses, and when it is lacking, a host of problems—depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance use disorders, and suicide—can ensue. Observational studies and randomized control trials have demonstrated that both giving and receiving social support offers substantial health benefits. Social media sites are likely to be a key platform for social interaction, and for giving and receiving social support.

We will first determine the feasibility of reaching recently deployed military Veterans through Facebook advertising. Among the Veterans reached via Facebook, we will quantify the extent to which they are at-risk for psychiatric problems. To prepare for intervention development, we will characterize recently deployed Veterans' preferences around social media use and presence of social support in their interactions on social media. After which we will determine whether social support received via social media is associated with reduced psychiatric symptoms. Then we will develop a natural language processing model to accurately identify presence of social support in Facebook posts.

This project has the potential for a significant impact that will be leveraged through several deliverables. First and foremost, this study will provide preliminary data to guide intervention development efforts proposed in a subsequent national grant application.