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Denton County debuts self-harm prevention AI developed by Frisco students

Denton County debuts self-harm prevention AI developed by Frisco students

Denton County debuts self-harm prevention AI developed by Frisco students
December 11
00:18 2022

Content warning: The following story includes language related to self-harm and suicide.

The Denton County MHMR Center teamed up with two Frisco high schoolers whose artificial intelligence can detect suicidal thoughts on social media.

There were 98 suicides in Denton County in 2021 and as of Nov. 30, there have been 94 this year, MHMR chief operations officer Brittany Waymack said. The two seniors from Centennial High School, Lavik Jain and Shivansh Nikhra, presented their work to the MHMR in November. They emailed MHMR’s representatives and presented their work which led to a trial run and adoption by Denton County.

“They did it over [a] week’s time just to see how many individuals would have tweeted suicidal statements and only one individual came back, which was good,” Waymack said. “So, we knew it wasn’t gonna be hundreds of people coming back.”

The center initially questioned how to reach out to individuals without their legal names on their Twitter accounts. They have now made an account to privately message these users.

“We’re having more impact on individuals that we weren’t even aware of,” Waymack said. “Maybe they won’t engage in treatment with us, but the fact that we can at least identify them […] and tell them that there is someone available to talk with. [We can] guide them, give them resources, or even provide treatment to them.”

The machine-learning AI does not simply look for keywords to identify potential self-harm.

“You could think of it as a black box that is fed input and is expected to spit out output,” Jain said. “This black box has been trained with 600,000 examples — social media posts — that were labeled as suicidal or not […] Now in the future, the model is able to take in more input and spit out output of its own.”

Users who are noted by the AI are added to an excel spreadsheet for each city of the 47 that currently use the software. The cities are individually emailed the spreadsheets on a weekly basis.

“They had it initially set up to where they wouldn’t give us a name unless there [were] three suicidal tweets, but we told them we don’t need three,” Waymack said. “You could do it if there’s just one that the system determines is a suicidal tweet to send it to us. So, sometimes it has one tweet, or sometimes it’ll have six tweets.”

There was a bug in the system recently which was resolved, Waymack said.

“We didn’t get a report from them for a few weeks, and we just assumed no one tweeted anything,” Waymack said. “Well, then they figured out there was a glitch in the system that kind of backlogged it.”

The center received 15 tweets from that backlog, but not all of them were deemed suicidal. MHMR goes through the tweets and verifies them individually as computer systems are not always foolproof, Waymack said.

“[An] individual kept tweeting about living with their mom and how they didn’t wanna live there anymore and things of that nature,” Waymack said.

To ensure the tweets are from the city running the AI, they give it a longitude and latitude and then a geographical radius around that point to collect tweets from within the area. When they came to MHMR, the center wanted all of Denton County, Waymack said. The creators have spread their project due to connections made in each city starting with Wylie, Texas and have been connected with Texas Health and Human Services.

“We were actually connected to Denton by a Frisco police department lieutenant,” Jain said. “LifePath Systems, which is the organization in Collin [County], connected us directly with the group at Texas HHS. They manage all of the mental health authorities across Texas.”

The idea for the project came from the pandemic and the extra time to work on something this ambitious, Jain said.

“I think the big thing that really inspired this product, particularly, was that everyone was moved online and we saw people expressing themselves online much more,” Jain said. “We’re more expressive online, you know, and we see it even today when everything is back to in-person. Social media is a platform where, whether it be because of the anonymity or lack of face-to-face interaction, people express themselves more.”

Some North Texas institutions, including the University of North Texas, used an online monitoring tool called Social Sentinel to monitor students for the same reasons. The university used the service from 2015 to 2018, stopping after they determined they were capable of monitoring in-house, UNT Police Chief Ed Reynolds told The Dallas Morning News.

Jain and Nikhra hope to improve the AI by letting it detect issues beyond initial posts as it does now. They want to add compatibility for comments and images.

“Future updates would include looking into computer vision […] which is basically detecting if there’s a tone within the image rather than the text or within comments,” Jain said. “[We are] even looking beyond just suicide. Whether people are posting things about active shooter threats or other situations that might need reporting that may concern mental health or even other issues.”

In the future, Jain and Nikhra said they hope to expand the project beyond the United States to have a bigger impact.

“The primary objective has always just been to save lives,” Nikhra said. “If we can expand across the United States, and even across the world in the future and just take our projects to that next level, improving the technology, improving our connections — that’s really the direction we want to go with this project and just scaling it to the next level.”

Featured Image: The front entrance to the Denton County MHMR on Dec. 4, 2022. Photo by Coralynn Cole

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Giovanni Delgadillo

Giovanni Delgadillo

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