A novel surveillance approach for disaster mental health

Background Disasters have substantial consequences for population mental health. Social media data present an opportunity for mental health surveillance after disasters to help identify areas of mental health needs. We aimed to 1) identify specific basic emotions from Twitter for the greater New York City area during Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall on October 29, 2012, and to 2) detect and map spatial temporal clusters representing excess risk of these emotions. Methods We applied an advanced sentiment analysis on 344,957 Twitter tweets in the study area over eleven days, from October 22 to November 1, 2012, to extract basic emotions, a space-time scan statistic (SaTScan) and a geographic information system (QGIS) to detect and map excess risk of these emotions. Results Sadness and disgust were among the most prominent emotions identified. Furthermore, we noted 24 spatial clusters of excess risk of basic emotions over time: Four for anger, one for confusion, three for disgust, five for fear, five for sadness, and six for surprise. Of these, anger, confusion, disgust and fear clusters appeared pre disaster, a cluster of surprise was found peri disaster, and a cluster of sadness emerged post disaster. Conclusions We proposed a novel syndromic surveillance approach for mental health based on social media data that may support conventional approaches by providing useful additional information in the context of disaster. We showed that excess risk of multiple basic emotions could be mapped in space and time as a step towards anticipating acute stress in the population and identifying community mental health need rapidly and efficiently in the aftermath of disaster. More studies are needed to better control for bias, identify associations with reliable and valid instruments measuring mental health, and to explore computational methods for continued model-fitting, causal relationships, and ongoing evaluation. Our study may be a starting point also for more fully elaborated models that can either prospectively detect mental health risk using real-time social media data or detect excess risk of emotional reactions in areas that lack efficient infrastructure during and after disasters. As such, social media data may be used for mental health surveillance after large scale disasters to help identify areas of mental health needs and to guide us in our knowledge where we may most effectively intervene to reduce the mental health consequences of disasters.