Harvard scientist wants to use smartphone data to understand suicides

Harvard scientist wants to use smartphone data to understand suicides

13 years ago, I woke up knowing that my oldest friend had committed suicide. I went back to my dad for the weekend for the Old Boy Scouts Anniversary Dinner – my friend and I have been in touch about our plans to go together. Needless to say, it turned out to be a sadder evening than expected.

Today when I woke up, I saw a headline in New York times It asks if smartphone data can be used to help predict suicides. Naturally, it sparked my interest. The article focused heavily on the work of Matthew Hooke, a Harvard psychologist who researches suicide. Hooke admits early on that the success rate in his field… isn’t particularly great. as he says times:

With all due respect to the people who have been doing this work for decades, and for a century, we haven’t learned much about how to identify people at risk and how to intervene. The suicide rate is now the same as it was 100 years ago. So only if we’re honest, we’re not going to get better.

So here’s what they’re trying to do, using biometric data mostly derived from FitBits or equivalent:

He spent his summers in days and hours 571 people, after seeking medical attention for suicidal thoughts, agreed to be tracked continuously for six months. While tracking down, two died by suicide and made between 50 and 100 attempts.

Dr. Nock believes it is the largest repository of information ever collected about the daily lives of people experiencing suicidal thoughts.

The team pays close attention to the days before the suicide attempts, allowing time for intervention. Already, some signs have emerged: Although the urge to commit suicide often does not change in the lead up to the attempt, the ability to resist those urges appears to wane. Something simple – sleep deprivation – seems to be contributing to this.


The sensor reported that the patient’s sleep was disturbed, she reported bad moods in the questionnaires and the GPS shows that she does not leave the house. But the accelerometer on her phone shows she’s moving a lot, indicating excitement. The algorithm informs the patient. A ping sounds on the instrument panel. And in due course, the doctor communicates by phone call or message.

There are of course privacy concerns here, as with anything to do with biometric data collection and healthcare; Thanks to the article, it does a lot of work to acknowledge these concerns. It also highlights the experiences of one of the study participants, who was already at risk of suicide, and said that in fact at some of its lower points it was easier to interact with an anonymous computer than with another human being. “Honestly, it makes me feel a little safer when I know there’s someone out there who cares enough to read that data every day, you know?” She said. “To let someone know how I’m feeling, it takes some weight off.”

I don’t know what this study will lead to. But hopefully, at the very least, we can learn more about the warning signs, and perhaps save some other people from the pain of dying and surviving.

As always, if you are struggling and overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts, please please Contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline At 1-800-273-TALK or Samaritans at 877-870-HOPE. It’s okay to have a hard time; It’s okay to be frustrated with yourself; Just don’t keep it. please. For you and for me.

Can smartphones help predict suicide? (Eileen Barry/The New York Times)

picture: Baumeier clouds Across Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0.0 Update)

Full disclosure: I also write for Wirecutter, part of The New York Times Company, which owns The New York Times.

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