A school psychologist senses that a student is depressed. The student says that some days he just doesn’t want to get out of bed. He feels alone, and sometimes feels there’s no hope for his future.

Clearly the student needs help, but is he suicidal?

Preventing a Tragic Outcome

Someone in the US commits suicide every 14 minutes — making it one of our most common killers.

Scientist John Pestian, PhD, a professor of Biomedical Informatics and Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s, has spent nearly a decade developing computer technology to help mental health professionals identify people at risk of suicide sooner and prevent their deaths.

His technology has been successfully tested in emergency rooms. Now he is working with school psychologists to bring this tool to Cincinnati schools to save students’ lives.

Dr. Pestian began his research by collecting 1,500 notes left behind by people who died by suicide. He mined the letters for cues computers

can recognize and interpret — words, clusters of words, patterns in sentence structure. He later added cues from tone of voice, silences and facial expressions.

From this he built a massive database based on actual conversations with suicidal adolescents and adults, and developed algorithms to teach computers how to recognize thought markers for suicide.

The computer “listens” to a patient’s conversation and reports: This does or does not sound like the conversation of a suicidal person. The innovative technology developed at Cincinnati Children’s is a new resource to assist mental health professionals.

To make the technology more widely available, Dr. Pestian converted it to a mobile phone app, which is being tested in 10 local schools and clinics. The school psychologist can turn on the app, which listens, compares what the student says with the database, and gives the psychologist a real-time report.

Ron Miller, MEd, psychologist at Dater High School, is optimistic it will “allow me to more effectively identify kids who are at risk.”