Abstract: Online Help-Seeking and Support Among Student Suicidal Ideators in the Midst of Pandemic: Linguistic Approach (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

175P Online Help-Seeking and Support Among Student Suicidal Ideators in the Midst of Pandemic: Linguistic Approach

Friday, January 14, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Gahwan Yoo, MA, PhD Student, New York University, NY
Tracy Grogan, MS, Research Scientist, NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, NY
Michael A. Lindsey, PhD, MSW, MPH, Executive Director; School's Constance and Martin Silver Professor of Poverty Studies, McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, New York, NY
Background: There are concerns about an increased risk of suicide among students due to COVID-19 pandemic. Although some studies pointed out that the effects of social isolation due to school closure could be risk factors of suicide, there is no empirical study on student suicidal ideators. Furthermore, online communication has increased over in-person communication due to social distancing. Analyzing online help-seeking behaviors can help researchers see emergent psychological distress in populations that may not seek formal treatment or be willing to enroll in traditional surveys or interviews. Prior studies reported that online help-seeking is especially common for youth from minority groups and those with higher levels of psychological distress. The research questions were: 1) Is there an increase in overall help-seeking among student suicidal ideators on Reddit’s subforum r/suicidewatch during COVID-19 when compared to the prior year?, 2) Is there a linguistic difference in risk factors between pre- and post-COVID?, and 3) Is there an increase/decrease in peer support during COVID-19?

Methods: We collected 13,967 posts in r/suicidewatch from March 2019-Feb 2020, and compared these with 16,108 posts from Mar 2020-Feb 2021. We used the keywords “school” and “teacher” to sort student’s posts out. We employed sentiment analysis to capture the difference of tone between the pre-COVID (post) and post-COVID (pre) datasets and the change of emotion-related words using the psycho-linguistic lexicon LIWC. Independent t-tests were conducted to see differences between pre- and post-samples. Then, we utilized the frequency of bigrams using TF-IDF to find emergent risk factors in post-samples. Finally, to capture the disparity between the needs of online help-seeking and peer-support, we analyzed the percentage of posts without any comment and average number of replies in two terms.

Results: We found that the trend-only (t) model by month explains 46.7% of the number of posts, indicating a significant increase in the number of suicide postings among students since the pandemic started. On average, post-samples show more negative-emotion words than pre-ones (pre = 4.36, post = 4.51, p < 0.1), along with an increase in anger (pre = 1.49, post = 1.57, p < 0.001). Regarding risk factors, post-samples used less social words and friends words, but more health/illness, sexuality, and present-focus and risk-focus words (p < 0.05). TF-IDF results indicated that the terms related to COVID-19 (online school, failing classes, stay home) emerged in post-samples. However, the percentage of posts without any peer-support reply has increased from 14.2% to 24.5%, along with the decrease in the average number of replies from 4.22 to 3.95.

Conclusions/Implications: The result can fill the gap in empirical research between COVID-19 and suicidal thoughts among students by analyzing the number of posts and their contents. We also identified the linguistic factors of suicidal ideators seeking help online. Finally, the mismatch in peer support implies that there is a disparity between the demand for online help-seeking and peer support in the suicide help-seeking community, indicating the need for social workers to consider online outreach strategies in order to lead online help-seekers to professional help-seeking.