In the aftermath of a suicide, family and friends of the deceased sometimes turn to social media sites for clues as to why it may have happened.
But on a more hopeful note, the trails left on these sites may also serve as something of an early warning system that could help prevent some of these tragedies, according to researchers at Brigham Young University.
Reporting in the journal Crisis, the researchers say they sifted through millions of tweets gathered from all 50 states over three months, on the hunt for both direct discussions of suicide and keywords that are associated with a range of suicide risk factors.
Out of the millions of tweets on hand, they found 37,717 worrying tweets from 28,088 unique users with some location info available. They then determined each state's ratio of such tweets, and found that these correlated strongly with each state's actual suicide rate.
For instance, in Alaska, home to the highest suicide rate in the country, the researchers found 61 at-risk Twitter users, while in Texas, which has a slightly lower rate but a far larger population, more than 3,000 Twitter users were flagged as being at risk.
Since Twitter serves as something of a giant, virtual haystack that can ultimately be defined one strand at a time, the researchers were able to use their algorithms to find the so-called needles. "Somebody ought to do something," Christophe Giraud-Carrier, a BYU computer scientist and one of the authors of the study, said in a news release. "How about using social media as a complement to what is already done for suicide prevention?"
Facebook has already taken a step in this direction. Soon after tech activist Aaron Swartz took his own life in January, Facebook started working with suicide prevention group SAVE to see if user data can somehow be used to detect early warning signs.
The researchers at Brigham Young say they hope to develop an app for schools to better follow and analyze posts originating from a specific student body so that school authorities can keep tabs on students directly -- with their permission, of course. The app could ultimately notify school counselors when certain posts appear that set off alarm bells.
"Suicide is preventable," Carl Hanson, a BYU health scientist and study co-author, added. "Social media is one channel for monitoring those at risk for suicide and potentially doing something about it."