Communicating Public Health: Discussions about mental and physical health among social media users during the pandemic

30th September 2020

Our Communicating Public Health series provides a window into the rich conversation that took place online during the national lockdown in the UK, when almost half of the British public (47%) reported spending more time on social media.

The objectives for this study were explored through collection of relevant social media data, drawn using a bespoke search query within the Synthesio platform. The result was a cleaned dataset of 27,497 social media posts from between 01 February and 30 June 2020. The dataset included posts from social networks, forums, and comments. Analysis of the dataset was conducted using topic modelling, factor analysis and qualitative investigation. As part of a wider investigation of implications for physical health, the initial topic model analysis was further supplemented through exploration of four additional topics on social media.

This, the fourth report of four, looks at some of the discussions about mental and physical health among social media users during the pandemic.

Key findings:

  • The experience of mental health during the pandemic was well represented on social media. This is apparent firstly by the volume of social media users’ expressing feelings of anxiety, depression or exhaustion, but also by the wealth of posts that sought to raise awareness of mental health and to offer advice and support.
  • Fear of contracting COVID-19 and concern over the welfare of loved ones were common themes underpinning many social media users’ expressions of feeling anxious, sad, angry, depressed or exhausted. However, direct health risks were not the only cause for concern. The breadth of issues discussed in relation to mental health included the impact of changing working practices, being placed on furlough or being insecure in employment, and being isolated from friends and family.
  • Social media also provides some insight into the groups of people who may have been disproportionately affected. Social media uses expressed particular concern for those who live alone, those who have difficult home lives or are at risk of abuse; children, pregnant women and new parents; and those with existing health conditions or with learning disabilities.
  • The data also demonstrates the difficulty faced by the government in responding to the pandemic. Social media users discussed the potential impact on mental health caused by different policy options; and in some cases, the options available presented a lose-lose situation. This is most obvious in the debate on social media in relation to the easing of lockdown; where social media users discussed balancing the potential impact on mental health from fear of contracting COVID-19, alongside the potential impact on mental health associated with sustained economic hardship and social isolation.
“In addition to the predictable anxiety expressed around the peak of the pandemic’s first wave, we can clearly discern a ‘pulling together’ of people who contribute to online communities – considerable efforts to provide advice and support as well as to articulate sympathy where appropriate. In this, we can perhaps see our inherently social selves making use of technology to reach out and connect with one another, despite the restrictions applied to physical interactions. It does, nonetheless, raise serious questions about the impact of the digital divide upon those excluded from participation in such virtual meeting spaces.” Annemarie Naylor MBE, Director of Policy & Strategy
Annemarie Naylor
  • Communicating Public Health - Report 4 Dicussions about mental and physical health among social media users during the pandemic
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