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Computers read suicide notes

Goal is to recognize danger signals

– A research team at an Ohio children’s hospital has been analyzing a collection of more than 1,300 suicide notes to try to help save lives.

John Pestian, the director of computational medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and his team are using advanced computer technology to analyze the language in the notes written by people of varying ages from all over North America.

The team hopes to gain a better understanding of the writers and use that information to create a tool that can help mental health workers assess the likelihood a person will attempt suicide, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

Only a few other suicide researchers are merging psychology and computational analysis, and Pestian is “really doing some groundbreaking work,” said Michelle Linn-Gust, president of the American Association of Suicidology.

The efforts are especially important because research to prevent suicide has reached a plateau, and the problem “is not going away,” according to Linn-Gust.

Someone dies by suicide every 14 minutes in the United States, according to the newspaper. About 40 suicidal young people come to the emergency department at Cincinnati Children’s each week, Pestian said.

Assessing a person’s risk for suicide often falls to social workers, nurses, psychologists or doctors – professionals whose training and life experiences can vary greatly.

“People hear things differently,” and that can result in differences in determining whether someone is suicidal, Pestian said.

His team is trying to develop more support for people making those decisions.

Pestian, who works in the field of neuropsychiatric computational linguistics, said he teaches “computers how to listen and report back what they think they’ve heard from people.”

The first step in the current research was to collect the notes written by people who died by suicide.

“When people hear you’re doing this work, they step up,” he said.

Surviving family members from across North America sent notes that were written between 1950 and the present by people of all ages, and those notes can be very depressing, Pestian said.

“I’ve cried more times that I can count over some of the things I’ve read,” he said.