A team of researchers from Brigham Young University, Johns Hopkins and Harvard analyzed over a billion data points to develop an algorithm that can predict suicidal thoughts and behaviors with 91% accuracy. (Mooremedia, Shutterstock)
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PROVO — As suicide rates among Utah teenagers and adolescents rise to some of the highest in the nation, a team of researchers from Brigham Young University, Johns Hopkins and Harvard analyzed over a billion data points to develop an algorithm that can predict suicidal thoughts and behaviors with 91% accuracy.
The research, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, analyzed data from 179,384 junior high and high school students who took the Student Health and Risk Prevention survey from 2011-2017. In total, the secondary analysis included more than 300 survey questions and 8,000 demographic tests to provide 1.2 billion data points related to suicidal ideations, through a partnership with the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
The team then used that data to create various algorithms, eventually landing on one that predicted suicidal thoughts and behavior with stunning accuracy.
Teen girls were found to be more likely than their male counterparts to experience suicidal thoughts and behavior, and adolescents without a father in the home were 72.6% more likely to have such tendencies than those reared by an active father.
Other top predictive factors for suicide include being threatened or harassed online and in digital media; being picked on or bullied by other students at school; and regular exposure and involvement in serious arguments and yelling at home.
Several of the findings corresponded with other recent data surrounding suicide, including a recent BYU study that found a disturbing correlation around excessive social media use and suicide in young girls.
“A lot of this we have known from other research; it’s nothing new,” said Carl Hanson, a BYU professor of public health and one of the study’s co-authors, who added the risk factors indicate a correlation, not causation. “Even all of these risk factors we’ve known about, or they wouldn’t be in the survey. But some of these factors percolate to the top as most important. They’re the most highly associated.”
The hope is that such research can better target community programs to identify those at high risk of suicide and prevent such tragedies before they happen.
“It’s all about connections, including connections among kids with other kids. If those connections aren’t good, it contributes to the problem,” Hanson told KSL.com. “Digital media and cellphones were huge in this study. So what can schools do to strengthen those positive connections in those channels? In the home, we knew families are under all kinds of attacks. We don’t have all the answers there, but there’s an area that can be looked at. What can a community do to help strengthen families?
“Communities have great programs already going on. It might be that communities and families can shift some resources in certain directions to help get a better handle on this. These are policy-level decisions.”
For some of the researchers, the study was immensely personal.
“I’ve had close friends that have had suicides in their family,” said BYU professor Quinn Snell, a professor of computer science who led the study’s methodology. “For me, it’s personal that way.”
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among adolescents in the United States and No.1 in Utah with an average of 660 suicide deaths per year, according to the Utah public health database. Understanding suicide is crucial to winning the fight against what has become an epidemic, said study co-author Michael Barnes, an associate dean in the BYU College of Life Sciences.
“It’s critical we have a better understanding of the risk factors — and the protective factors — associated with this heartbreaking issue,” said Michael Barnes, a co-author of the study and associate dean of the BYU College of Life Sciences, in a news release. “Our study explores these factors among adolescents to reflect the school and home environments.”
Programs should help adolescents develop stronger connections with peers, and even in an offline setting, forging personal bonds that can help combat the threats of suicidal ideations. Families can help, too, by spending time together — even as little as eating one meal per day together can dramatically decrease the risk of suicide in teens and adolescents.
The best place to start suicide prevention programs may be at school. But equally important is a community’s ability to strengthen the family in preventing such tragedies.
The suicidal thoughts and behavior risk profile developed by the researchers can aid policymakers in preparing services, resources and assessments aimed at school, community and family settings — and better target them toward those at higher risk of suicide.
Contributing: Jed Boal, KSL-TV
Suicide Prevention Resources
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
The Utah Department of Health offers suicide prevention help at utahsuicideprevention.org/suicide-prevention-basics. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Help is also available through the SafeUT app.
- Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
- National Suicide Prevention Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741-741
- Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386
- University Of Utah Crisis Interventional Crisis Line: 801-587-300