Suicide prevention takes a forward step

In a move to curb the alarmingly high rate of youth depression and suicide, social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace and Twitter could be scanned for signs of "at risk" behaviour.

Researchers at New Zealand's Victoria University claim to have devised a program that is capable of scanning posts within social networking sites to identify keywords that could indicate that a poster is at risk of depression, self-harm, suicide or even harming others.

"Our technology picks up words and phrases such as 'depressed', or 'I don't want to live anymore' or 'I want to kill somebody'", Dr Tiong-Thye Goh said. To filter out those users who are using such terms in a jokingly sense or being overly dramatic, the program can rank phrases and keywords according to their frequency of use. Dr Goh said, "...if certain keywords are used a lot it is likely that the particular person may be emotionally depressed".

Dr Goh believes that social networking sites have, in recent years, become a significant avenue in which young people openly express their feelings and concerns with others. Therefore, a program with this technology is highly valuable.

In time, the project will be expanded to implement technology that allows a poster deemed to be at risk to be contacted. Dr Goh gave one possible example as a short message that asks, "How are you?" with three different response options being, "Good", "A bit down", or "Bad - need help". The option of needing help could link to a website with resources and contact numbers to assist the poster.

The program is still being developed.

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