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Data scientists have identified 4 words and 1 emoji that signal someone is a suicide risk

A text-based crisis hotline used technology to find the people most at risk of suicide based on the words they used. They’re not the words you think.

Data scientists have identified 4 words and 1 emoji that signal someone is a suicide risk
[Photo: Jack Sharp/Unsplash]

A new report from Crisis Text Line, a text-based suicide hotline, highlights the key words that indicate a person is at high risk of suicide—and they’re not what you would think.

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America is suffering from a rise in suicide. In 2018, over 48,000 people died of suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Crisis hotlines and text lines have an opportunity to step in when someone is having a moment of crisis and give them hope. Since launching in 2013, Crisis Text Line has fielded 129 million messages.

“When we say to people, guess what our high risk words are, most people say ‘help,’ or ‘sad,’ or ‘desperate’—they say words that are about the awful feeling,” says Nancy Lublin, who founded Crisis Text Line. “But actually the words you should look for are the words that are the mode of attempting this terrible thing.”

So what words tell suicide crisis workers that a person is in deep need of help? “Excedrin,” “Ibuprofens,” “acetaminophen,” “800 mg,” and, most of all, the pill emoji.

These words, according to Lublin, show that a person has moved past thinking about suicide to planning it and potentially carrying it out.

Crisis Text Line’s data scientists came up with this list using an algorithm. Technology allowed them to bypass the human instinct to focus on more emotional cues, like “depressed,” “sad,” or even “suicide.” The algorithm picked out words that preceded an escalation. With this list of words, the technology can surface the most at-risk texters and move them to the front of the line the same way hospitals treat the most severe cases first.

Once a Crisis Text Line counselor connects with someone, they work with them to pull back and develop a safety plan in case they find themselves feeling suicidal in the future. Through the algorithm, the organization is able to prioritize 86% of the highest-risk individuals. In less than 1% of cases, counselors have had to call emergency services to intervene. Previously the organization had used a different list of words, cobbled together from research and academic articles, to organize cases. Under the old model, Crisis Text Line was identifying about 50% of people who needed immediate intervention.

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“Having an algorithm like that is the difference between life and death,” says Lublin.

The words highlighted in this story were first published in a report from Crisis Text Line called “Everybody Hurts: The State of Mental Health 2020.” In addition to showcasing the words it uses to seek out those most in need of help, the report details mental health statistics for all 50 states. The organization is hoping that researchers and academics will use the data to dig deeper into what is causing depression and anxiety in each region.

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK or text 741-741 to text Crisis Text Line. 

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About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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