Transgender and gender-nonconforming people have a higher-than-average risk for AIDS and are more vulnerable than others to depression. But because stigma about gender identities makes them less likely to disclose information about themselves to researchers, it also has been difficult for doctors to understand the best ways to provide care for them.

New research by the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology suggests that social media could help fill that knowledge gap.

In a study published in the peer-reviewed journal JMIR Mental Health, the researchers reported that because transgender and gender-nonconforming people frequently use social media to discuss important health and social needs, resources like Twitter may provide a wealth of useful information for doctors and public health professionals.

“Transgender individuals are at risk for some of the most important public health problems, such as HIV, substance abuse and depression,” said Sean Young, the study’s co-author and the executive director of the institute, which is based in the UCLA department of family medicine. “There has been little research studying transgender communities because they can be very closed communities who fear stigmatization. Our institute has studied how to use social big data to address public health needs and we wanted to apply this work to address the needs of transgender communities and researchers.”

Young and co-author Evan Krueger collected 1,135 tweets with 13 relevant hashtags, including terms like #trans or #girlslikeus. The tweets discussed issues such as violence, discrimination, suicide and sexual risk.

“This approach can be used to better understand people, prevent diseases and predict important trends — including views on policies that affect transgender populations or changes in health,” said Krueger, a doctoral student at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Read the full news release.