AI can provide strong predictive accuracy for identifying adolescents that have experienced suicidal thoughts

Machine learning can provide strong predictive accuracy for identifying adolescents that have experienced suicidal thoughts and

Researchers have developed a new, machine learning-based algorithm that shows high accuracy in identifying adolescents who are experiencing suicidal thoughts and behavior. Orion Weller of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on November 3rd, 2021.

Decades of research have identified specific risk factors associated with suicidal thoughts and behavior among adolescents, helping to inform suicide prevention efforts. However, few studies have explored these risk factors in combination with each other, especially in large groups of adolescents. Now, the field of machine learning has opened up new opportunities for such research, which could ultimately improve prevention efforts.

To explore that opportunity, Weller and colleagues applied machine-learning analysis to data from a survey of high school students in Utah that is routinely conducted to monitor issues such as drug abuse and mental health. The data included responses to more than 300 questions each for more than 179,000 high school students who took the survey between 2011 to 2017, as well as demographic data from the U.S. census.

The researchers found that they could use the survey data to predict with 91 percent accuracy which individual adolescents’ answers indicated suicidal thoughts or behavior. In doing so, they were able to identify which survey questions had the most predictive power; these included questions about digital media harassment or threats, at-school bullying, serious arguments at home, gender, alcohol use, feelings of safety at school, age, and attitudes about marijuana.

The new algorithm’s accuracy is higher than that of previously developed predictive approaches, suggesting that machine-learning could indeed improve understanding of adolescent suicidal thoughts and behavior—and could thereby help inform and refine preventive programs and policies.

Future research could expand the new findings by using data from other states, as well as data on actual suicide rates.

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