A research project in Harvard’s psychology department is attempting to use to use advances in artificial intelligence to do something that has eluded psychiatrists for centuries: predict who is likely to attempt suicide and when that person is likely to attempt it, and then, intervene.
It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, and admittedly has some serious “Minority Report” and Big Brother overtones, but it also has promise for tackling a suicide rate that is the same today as it was 100 years ago.
Matthew K. Nock, a Harvard psychologist who is one of the nation’s top suicide researchers, hopes to knit these technologies together into a kind of early-warning system that could be used when an at-risk patient is released from the hospital.
He offers this example of how it could work: The sensor reports that a patient’s sleep is disturbed, she reports a low mood on questionnaires and GPS shows she is not leaving the house. But an accelerometer on her phone shows that she is moving around a lot, suggesting agitation. The algorithm flags the patient. A ping sounds on a dashboard. And, at just the right time, a clinician reaches out with a phone call or a message.
There are plenty of reasons to doubt that an algorithm can ever achieve this level of accuracy. Suicide is such a rare event, even among those at highest risk, that any effort to predict it is bound to result in false positives, forcing interventions on people who may not need them. False negatives could thrust legal responsibility onto clinicians.
Algorithms require granular, long-term data from a large number of people, and it’s nearly impossible to observe large numbers of people who die by suicide. Finally, the data needed for this kind of monitoring raises red flags about invading the privacy of some of society’s most vulnerable people.
Dr. Nock is familiar with all these arguments but has persisted, in part out of sheer frustration. “With all due respect to people who’ve been doing this work for decades, for a century, we haven’t learned a great deal about how to identify people at risk and how to intervene,” he said. “The suicide rate now is the same it was literally 100 years ago. So just if we’re being honest, we’re not getting better.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
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