Many turn to social media to express their deepest feelings. Knowing this, a Chinese researcher has found a way to reach out to people who may be in a bad mental state, and help them turn away from suicidal thoughts.
Huang Zhisheng, a senior artificial intelligence researcher at Vrije University of Amsterdam, created Tree Hole, an AI bot that tracks Chinese social media platform Weibo and alerts a group of nearly 600 psychology scholars, consultants, and volunteers when it finds posts concerning suicide, The South China Morning Post reported.
The program launched in July 2018 and has reportedly prevented more than 1,000 suicides since. Psychologists reach out to netizens who open up about their depression and suicidal tendencies.
One of them is Wang Le, who received a message from a consultant offering to help him with his mental health, after posting about his struggles on Weibo.
Wang told the SCMP that he first received a message saying, “Are you OK?” This was followed by one that said, “Would you like to talk to me?”
At that time, he barely left his home due to a social phobia and wasn’t eating. With the help of Tree Hole’s consultants, who convinced his mother to live with him, Wang’s life improved. He now eats regularly.
The name is a reference to “tree hole posts” on Weibo, the area on the platform known for emotional stories. It’s the modern day equivalent of whispering secrets into a tree hole.
Tree Hole works by automatically scanning Weibo every four hours and pulling up posts containing words and phrases like “death,” “release from life,” and “end of the world.”
Huang has classified suicidal posts into 10 levels. The highest contains the most details, such as time, location, and suicide method. These require urgent action and are prioritized by the Tree Hole team.
According to the United Nations, suicide kills one person every 40 seconds. In fact, it is the second most primary cause of death among 15-29 year-olds globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which projected that 1.5 million people from all age groups will take their own lives over the next year.
In China, WHO said that at least 138,482 committed suicide in 2018, which meant a suicide rate of 9.7 for every 100,000 people.
Tree Hole aims to give access to proper psychological help to those who normally would not have it, and people who have totally distanced themselves from loved ones. Huang is now working on a conversational bot that can chat with people in the same way a human psychologist can, programmed to react appropriately to different personalities.
Although Tree Hole only applies to Weibo, which has mostly mainland Chinese users, some researchers from around the world have invited Huang to collaborate and expand it beyond China.
While this seems like a step in the right direction in preventing suicides, tracking and storing actionable mental health data without user-consent has raised privacy concerns. Google, Facebook and Pinterest have also started to use AI to assess suicide risk among its users but have experienced limitations, precisely because of these privacy concerns.
Responding to this, Huang told the SCMP that it only monitors Weibo, which is an open platform.