Big Data to Solve Big Problems: John Pestian’s Focus on Suicide Prevention

Is it possible for technology to help prevent suicide? John Pestian, PhD, MBA, and his lab have spent the last 10 years proving that it can. Suicide is a massive public health problem—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34, the fourth leading cause among people ages 34 to 54, and the fifth leading cause among people ages 45 to 54. Pestian approaches this big problem with big data. Armed with expertise in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, natural language processing, and computational linguistics, he and his team discover new ways to prevent suicide. The key is teaching computers how to understand emotions in text and voice. Recent projects utilizing this technology include:

  • Spreading Activation Mobile (SAM), an app that records the conversation during counseling sessions and measures the patient’s words to determine if their language is similar to someone who is at risk for suicide
  • Wysa, an AI-powered chat bot offering help for anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Clairity, an app-based listening tool that analyzes speech to identify patients at risk of suicide
  • Million Veteran Program (MVP), a United States Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Energy initiative for mining data and DNA samples from one million veterans Now, Pestian is spearheading a partnership between Cincinnati Children’s and the United States Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory—home to the nation’s most powerful supercomputer. Combining clinical and computational expertise, the interdisciplinary team will focus on analyzing complex data for earlier identification of anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation, leading to better outcomes and quality of life. The team will use AI, machine learning methods, and the nation’s most powerful computers to develop near real-time mental health trajectories, discover new indicators of mental illness, and determine how to translate these findings to clinical settings. Learn more about mental health research in the Pestian Lab.

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