In recent years, remote digital healthcare using online chats has gained momentum, especially in the Global South. Though prior work has studied interaction patterns in online (health) forums, such as TalkLife, Reddit and Facebook, there has been limited work in understanding interactions in small, close-knit community of instant messengers. In this paper, we propose a linguistic annotation framework to facilitate analysis of health-focused WhatsApp groups. The primary aim of the framework is to understand interpersonal relationships among peer supporters in order to help develop NLP solutions for remote patient care and reduce burden of overworked healthcare providers. Our framework consists of fine-grained peer support categorization and message-level sentiment tagging. Additionally, due to the prevalence of code-mixing in such groups, we incorporate word-level language annotations. We use the proposed framework to study two WhatsApp groups in Kenya for youth living with HIV, facilitated by a healthcare provider.
Empathy is critical to successful mental health support. Empathy measurement has predominantly occurred in synchronous, face-to-face settings, and may not translate to asynchronous, text-based contexts. Because millions of people use text-based platforms for mental health support, understanding empathy in these contexts is crucial. In this work, we present a computational approach to understanding how empathy is expressed in online mental health platforms. We develop a novel unifying theoretically-grounded framework for characterizing the communication of empathy in text-based conversations. We collect and share a corpus of 10k (post, response) pairs annotated using this empathy framework with supporting evidence for annotations (rationales). We develop a multi-task RoBERTa-based bi-encoder model for identifying empathy in conversations and extracting rationales underlying its predictions. Experiments demonstrate that our approach can effectively identify empathic conversations. We further apply this model to analyze 235k mental health interactions and show that users do not self-learn empathy over time, revealing opportunities for empathy training and feedback.