Using Data to Save Lives

Seeing a friend or loved one go through a crisis can often create a crisis of its own. As a counselor on Crisis Text Line, I have conversed with a good number of these texters. We define “third party” texters as individuals seeking resources to support a friend or loved one who they fear is in imminent risk of suicide. When faced with a situation like this, so many of us would struggle with what to say, who to contact, or what action to take next. Inlaid over all of these questions is the pervasive stigma attached to mental health that makes people hesitant to talk about the subject openly.

The result: many cries for help go unnoticed, many internal dialogues remain unspoken.

Suicide rates have hit a 30-year high in the United States. Many different factors have contributed to this disturbing trend. Fundamentally, though, our failure to address this issue is grounded in the culture of silence and submission surrounding mental health. For so long people with thoughts of depression, anxiety, self-harm etc. have had to live in the shadows. Such thoughts have been seen as signs of weakness, immaturity or selfishness. Self-censorship has felt like the only way to stay “strong.” Even when this struggle is noticed by concerned loved-ones, our culture has viewed these topics as private and personal causing honest conversations to rarely take place.

The key to reversing this trend is bringing mental health issues into the light. There are many organizations working toward this goal. Today I want to touch on the impactful progress made by two, Crisis Text Line and Facebook, and the role data plays in driving awareness and targeting treatment.

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Millions of people are in crisis daily. For some, help is within reach: phone calls to loved ones or friends, visits to local community centers, conversations with trusted peers or mentors etc. For many, though, finding support feels impossible. The stigma surrounding mental health discussed above and a lack of awareness about available support force many people to battle their crisis alone.

Since its founding in 2013, Crisis Text Line has empowered millions of people to step out of the shadows and accept the support they deserve. By using text messaging as a medium to provide crisis intervention the service has significantly reduced the roadblocks, whether real or perceived, people encounter when searching for support. Broadly speaking, in these nonverbal conversations people are willing to talk about issues, share fears, and embrace vulnerability in ways that they may have never been comfortable with through traditional forms of support.

With more than 20 million messages exchanged in the past 3 years, Crisis Text Line has the single largest data corpus on crisis in the world. One of its top priorities is to find ways to utilize this data to better understand the state of mental health in America. Crisis Text Line’s recent launch of an open data collaborations program has the goal of using this data to empower researchers and academic institutions around the world to study mental health in ways never thought possible. The uniform text-based nature of its metadata makes its dataset one-of-a-kind. Here are just a few exciting research questions that could be explored:

  • How do weather and depression relate?
  • What crises correlate with suicidal ideation?
  • How do crises differ from the school year to the summer?

The answers to these questions and many more could lead to groundbreaking advances in the way we understand mental health. It will be possible to incorporate these findings into standard training practices for counselors and others in the mental health treatment field. The experimental possibilities are endless. This data is already being used to save lives, and the full potential of its impact has only just started to take shape.

Exciting developments are on the horizon that will push this impact to new heights. In June of this year, Crisis Text Line and Facebook announced a game-changing partnership. This partnership provides an opportunity to break down the culture of silence regarding mental health and empower friends and family to take action.

Social networks are unique in how they operate in between our “public” and “private” lives. This dynamic creates an environment where some people are willing to share things on Facebook that they would never discuss in person. These small windows into the personal lives of users come in many forms; but on occasion, they amplify cries for help.

“Thank you to everyone who tried to help me”

“I just don’t understand the point”

“Goodbye”

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The screen flagged individuals see upon logging into their accounts.

Statuses indicating suicidal ideation, self-harm or other mental health challenges are not new to Facebook. What the company is willing to do to empower both third parties and its users in crisis, though, is unprecedented. In June of this year, Facebook began the initial rollout of tools to support the mental health of its users. Users can now flag friends’ posts when worried about their safety. The Compassion team at Facebook reviews all flagged posts and, if deemed necessary, communicates with the at-risk individual and provides information on suicide prevention. This highly curated list of resources includes the option to open a direct conversation (through Facebook’s Messenger platform) with a crisis counselor on Crisis Text Line, enabling frictionless support for those in need.

The impact of this partnership and its ability to fuel continued progress toward Crisis Text Line’s mission cannot be overstated. Now that Crisis Text Line is accessible through both its native medium (text messaging) and the Messenger platform, it is easier than ever before to connect those in crisis with the help they deserve. Facebook-originated conversations may offer new insights on the picture of mental health in America and will continue to expand the reach of Crisis Text Line’s platform.

As organizations like Crisis Text Line and Facebook work to bring mental health issues into the light, more people will find the support they need. As more people find the support they need, data analysis supports the pursuit of more effective treatment strategies. As our collective consciousness surrounding mental health issues turns away from silent judgment to acceptance and understanding, our society can better take care of its most vulnerable.

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With all these exciting advancements in mind, I have decided on the next step in my professional journey. I want to search out impactful insights as a Data Scientist and work on projects like the research questions I posed above. Immediately following graduation in May I began studying rigorously to gain acceptance into a 13-week Data Science Immersive program at Galvanize in San Francisco. Following three rounds of technical interviews, I was accepted into the August 1st cohort. I am now midway through my third week of the course. I see this as an opportunity to combine my academic and personal passions to drive social impact. I can’t wait to harness the tools of Data Science to begin driving that change.

Scotty

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I grew up in a small town called Orinda, about 20 minutes to the East of San Francisco. Naturally curious, eager to learn, intuitively organized and empathically geared – I strive to make conscious decisions to drive impact. My mind never stops working. Whether in the classroom, professional environments, volunteering capacities or personal hobbies, I enjoy thinking critically about my surroundings and problem solving to find solutions.

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