Sydney University pioneers Facebook psychotherapy

The University of Sydney is pioneering Facebook psychotherapy, with a new project that uses social media online tracking techniques commonly employed by marketing analysts to detect and support people with mental health issues.

Social media psychotherapy could be the next big thing in the field of mental health management if the development of a new internet-based tool called CyberMate by the University of Sydney gets off the ground.

According to the university, the team behind the CyberMate project will adapt online tracking techniques used by marketing analysts, along with digital social media and internet data to support interventions for young people affected by depression and other mental health issues.

The researchers working on the project aim to design algorithms that will give the online tool the ability to screen a young person's social networking pages such as Facebook or Twitter for comments that may indicate potential self-harm.

CyberMate would then act as a quasi-psychotherapist and engage with the young online user, suggesting options for help or support via email or SMS.

The project, led by associate professor Rafael Calvo of the university's engineering and information technologies faculty, and professor Ian Hickie of the Brain and Mind Research Institute, will receive around AU$380,000 in funding to partner with the Inspire Foundation to create CyberMate.

The university describes CyberMate as a "novel automated psychological intervention based on data collected from social networks, personal diaries, natural language processing, and machine learning techniques".

It expects the internet-based intervention to be the first of its kind, helping young people affected by depression and other mental health issues.

According to Calvo, the project will require the development of new technology that combines data mining and natural language processing.

"We are focused on combining human-computer interaction techniques and psychotherapy," he said. "Marketing organisations routinely track users as they navigate the web, and use personal and behavioural data to target advertising. This project aims to use this and other data to improve mental health interventions."

The new project is the latest in the Australian landscape using technology to gauge feelings, with the CSIRO leveraging Twitter comments earlier this month to determine how the 2014 Budget emotionally affected locals.

The We Feel tool, which recorded around 68,000 more tweets in the Oceania region on Budget night — compared to the previous Tuesday — was developed in partnership with Amazon Web Services and the Black Dog Institute to enable real-time online responses to people in high-stress situations.