BYU researchers create algorithm to predict adolescent suicidal thoughts, behavior

Nov 4, 2021, 1:29 PM
Suicide prevention card. A Utah agency is holding suicide prevention classes...
A drawing hangs along with other messages of hope and remembrance as part of Suicide Prevention Day at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (Spenser Heaps/Deseret News)
(Spenser Heaps/Deseret News)

PROVO — New research from Brigham Young University led to the creation of an algorithm that can accurately predict suicidal thoughts and behavior among Utah junior high and high school students. 

The study of nearly 180,000 teenagers in Utah led researchers to identify the most likely predictors of suicidal thoughts and behavior. These include online harassment, bullying at school, and major arguments between family members. 

“Those things were really related to what’s going on digitally in adolescents’ lives and also what’s going on in the home,” says Carl Hansen, professor of public health at BYU. 

Read more: After daughter’s suicide attempt, mom wants to give kids tools to break free

Using machine learning, Hansen says they could predict troubling thoughts and actions with remarkable precision. 

“We were able to predict with 91% accuracy suicidal thought and behavior among this adolescent population,” he says. 

Read more: Reasons to Hope: Suicide is Utah’s most preventable tragedy

The study concluded females were at greater risk than men by about 7%. Analysis of the data also discovered adolescents without a father in the home were an astonishing 72.6% more likely to have suicidal ideation. 

Of course, Hansen points out, this is a matter of correlation and not causation.  A student experiencing interpersonal trouble on social media, in the halls at school, and in the living room with the family will not automatically resort to these thoughts and behaviors. The correlations are strong, but there may be other factors involved in why a teenager would have these feelings. 

However, this gives an excellent place to begin when considering ideas for prevention. This is especially true with a 91% percent accuracy threshold. 

Hansen says, “If you want to wrap your head around what you can do about it, these profiles are one good place to start.” 

As a father himself, the professor hopes this information gives communities, schools, and families more tools to create programs implement policy, and improve mental wellbeing among young, vulnerable Utahns. 

Read more: Utah launches three year, multi-million dollar suicide prevention campaign

Know the warning signs

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or exhibiting warning signs, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The following are warning signs of immediate risk. Call 911 if you or someone you know is experiencing the following:

  • Threatening to hurt or kill themself or talking of wanting to hurt or kill themself
  • Looking for ways to kill themself by seeking access to firearms, available pills or other means
  • Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary

Additional warning signs include: 

  • Increased substance use
  • No reason for living, no sense of purpose in life
  • Anxiety, agitation, unable to sleep or sleeping all the time
  • Feeling trapped — like there’s no way out
  • Hopelessness
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and society
  • Rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge
  • Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking
  • Dramatic mood changes

Courtesy of the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition

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BYU researchers create algorithm to predict adolescent suicidal thoughts, behavior