Identifying psychosocial support needs through social listening on internet discussion forums: a case study of r/COVID19_support

Fathima Rushda Balabaskaran, Annabel Jones-Gammon , Rebecca How, Jennifer Cole

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The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a severe mental strain on people in general, and on young people in particular, especially during periods of lockdown and movement restrictions. Online support forums offer opportunities for peer-to-peer health and social support, which can ease pressure on professional and established volunteer services when demand is high. Such forums can also be used to monitor at-risk communities to identify concerns and causes of psychosocial stress. The aim of this study was to observe an online support forum to see if such a platform can be used for health surveillance or ‘social listening’, in this case to identify issues that are causing or exacerbating psychological stress and anxiety in university-age students.

We monitored r/COVID19_support, an online forum for people seeking support during the COVID-19 pandemic, on the platform The forum was set up in February 2020. We observed and analyzed posts made between February 2020 and July 2021. We used search terms related to student life, and real-time observation, to identify posts made by users self-identifying as students or posting about college/university life. We then coded these posts to identify themes that were related to triggers of psychological anxiety and distress.

During the study period, 147 posts were made to the forum by 111 unique users. A number of themes were identified by manual coding, including: feelings of grief associated with the loss of college-related life experiences, such as graduation ceremonies or proms; difficulties with focusing on online and self-guided learning; and fears for the future, in particular of graduating into a constrained job market. Concerns were particularly acute in students who self-identified as autistic and in those who had been struggling with mental health before the pandemic. Identification of specific issues enabled users to be signposted to information that may help them to address those particular concerns.

Monitoring peer-to-peer forums can help to identify specific issues with which vulnerable groups may require additional support, enabling users to be signposted to high-quality information to address specific issues.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages16
JournalGlobal Journal of Medicine and Public Health
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 7 Feb 2022


  • Information science
  • Social listening
  • Disease outbreaks
  • Public health
  • Behaviour
  • Communication

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