A growing number of researchers and tech companies are beginning to mine social media for warning signs of suicidal thoughts. Their efforts build on emerging evidence that the language patterns of a person’s social-media posts, as well as the subconscious ways they interact with their smartphone can hint at psychiatric trouble.
Businesses are just starting to test programs to automatically detect such signals. Mindstrong, for instance, an app developer in Palo Alto, California, is developing and testing machine-learning algorithms to correlate the language that people use and their behaviour — such as scrolling speed on smartphones — with symptoms of depression and other mental disorders.
Those at risk of suicide are difficult to identify, at least in the short term, and so suicide is difficult to prevent, says Matthew Nock, a psychologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. According to Nock, most people who attempt suicide deny considering it when talking to mental-health professionals. Social media, however, provides a window into their emotions in real time. “We can bring the lab to the person,” Nock says.
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