Sometimes, preventing suicide is a matter of sending out the right message at the right time. Social media represents a new channel to reach out to many people that need help but have not looked for appropriate assistance.
The Woman Post | Catalina Mejía Pizano
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Ana Freire holds a Ph.D. in computer science and works as Head of the Tech Academic Unit of the UPF Barcelona School of Management and as a Senior Lecturer. She also works by offering social media solutions for those people who are planning to commit suicide. The World Health Organization has mentioned that every year, the number of people who die from intentionally causing their death, is higher than those who die of aids, breast cancer, or even as a result of wars or homicides. According to the National Institute of Statistics in Spain, more than 10 people die every day by suicide. The pandemic has also played a part in elevating this number.
The STOP (Suicide prevenTion in sOcial Platforms) Project, which is promoted by Ana Freire analyzes social media in search of behavioral patterns which could be linked to suicidal behavior, to offer help for people who are at high risk of committing suicide. The Project implements the use of social media, text and image analysis as well as artificial intelligence combined with the collaboration of experts in different fields. It offers assistance by reaching out to people through social media, encouraging them to receive help. Developing tools to prevent intentional deaths, is not an easy task. It means getting involved in a field that has been permeated by taboos and that hasn’t been widely explored. When Freire arrived at the UPF School of Management, she was looking for a research topic that would keep her motivated. She found it by exploring the relationship between social media and mental health, a field that had not been a research subject before.
Freire focused her attention on the detection of behavioral patterns that could be considered as indicators of suicide risk for individuals who expressed themselves on social media and who found it hard to express themselves in real life. In a recent interview, Ana Freire mentioned that she ran into a post on Facebook, where a girl mentioned that she was willing to commit suicide. Below, many comments told her not to, some even alerted the police, but the authorities came too late. This was the moment when she realized how important it was to create a technology that could detect this type of problem on time, to prevent people from committing suicide.
The creator of STOP has also mentioned that when the Project began in 2017, mental health was not considered an urgent topic for researchers, and this is why it was very difficult to find funding. The algorithms from the Project can detect high-risk behaviors concerning suicide and when a high-risk profile is detected, it displays messages that contain helplines to prevent people from committing suicide.
As it is shown by Freire through her Project, social media may be seen from different angles. Although it can indeed be harmful to self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, because it can lead to comparisons and fear of missing out, it also represents an opportunity to reach out to many people that have mental health problems and have not been diagnosed. It allows us to detect people who need help, but who haven’t called out for assistance!