PREDICTING SELF HARM
Despite being the 10th leading cause of death in the US, suicide remains extremely difficult to predict. Experts say that’s because many people’s risk for self-harm is paired with another mental illness and fluctuates according to various stressors in their life, all of which interact uniquely within each individual. Complicating matters is that suicidal ideation — which can signal a growing risk for self
‘happy,’ ‘love,’ and ‘fun.’”
Danforth said mental health professionals are still dependent on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) and one-on-one interviews, but he believes the data being amassed by smartphones means mental health is on the verge of a “digital revolution.”
“We’re already talking with doctors at the University of Vermont who want to build a screening tool for the emergency room that would ask people whether they’d be willing to have an algorithm look at their social media history,” Danforth noted.
The tools, however, will only be as good as the data that is used to create machine learning algorithms, Harkavy-friedman said, noting that there is a lack of longitudinal studies on suicide. Social media will offer important information, she said, but any population of people being studied will always include false positives — people who exhibit suicidal behaviours but don’t go on to end their own lives.
“The more we can learn about both the factors leading to suicide, the better off we’ll be,” she said.
Experts said it could take another five to 10 years to create algorithms predictive enough to be reliably deployed inside hospitals, schools and therapists’ offices. Questions will have to be resolved as well, experts said, such as whether predictive algorithms will affect health insurance premiums or what happens if drug companies manage to access people’s predictive data?
John Pestian, a physician and professor in the divisions of Biomedical Informatics and psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Centre within the University of Cincinnati, said it’s too early to answer those questions. When he created SAM he was only focused on one thing: Alleviating suffering with technology.
“You go into the emergency department and you go to the intensive care unit and you see technology everywhere, but you go into a psychiatrist’s office and you see a couch,” Pestian said.
“Why?” he added. “Because folks like me haven’t built anything for them until now.”