RIO DE JANEIRO – Every 45 minutes someone in Brazil commits suicide, a problem that is growing among young people and the reason for the launch of the Algorithm of Life by the Brazilian edition of Rolling Stones magazine, a project that seeks to stop people from taking their own lives in that country.
With technology and the analysis of cases like that of writer Virginia Woolf or the rock band Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, the project developed an algorithm that enables the detection of possible suicide messages on social media, and in so doing serves as the basis for suicide prevention.
According to the World Health Organization, suicide leaves more victims than war, murders or other conflicts on the planet, and young men between the ages of 16 and 29 have the fastest growing suicide rate.
In Brazil, suicide is the fourth-leading cause of death among young men, a fact that concerns the country, even more so considering studies that say for every person who commits suicide, another 20 try to kill themselves and fail.
Despite being a serious problem, suicide has been a taboo subject worldwide, something the public and media avoid talking about. Brazil is no exception.
For that reason Rolling Stone Brazil chose to break the mold, tackle the problem and created the Algorithm of Life.
“Suicide is a global problem, but when we analyze the data, we see that the numbers in Brazil have been growing. Talking about a person taking his own life is taboo, and we at the magazine want to change that,” editor-in-chief Pedro Antunes told EFE.
The fact is, according to Antunes, talking about suicide and shining a light on a problem that society prefers to keep in the dark has had positive results.
In Japan, one of the countries with the greatest number of suicides among young people, the rate has dropped in recent years, ever since they chose to face the problem without reserve.
Though the initiative is made up of several elements developed together, the tool that does the work is an algorithm designed specifically to identify, through phrases and words, symptoms of depression and suicidal tendencies.
“I’ve had it...nothing makes any sense...I feel so alone” are examples of phrases often included in messages by people feeling such deep depression it could trigger suicide, Daniel Martins de Barros, a psychiatrist who practices at the hospital run by the University of Sao Paulo medical school, told EFE.
Phrases and words like that are identified by the algorithm, which also registers their recurrence, and with that creates a profile.
Those who designed the tool used information from specialists as a guide for identifying pleas for help – either intentional or subconscious – that are expressed during a bout of depression. But they also based it on real cases of artists who committed suicide.
It was in that way they used the diary of Kurt Cobain, who shot and killed himself at age 27 when he was at the peak of his career, and analyzed a random collection of letters and notes written by British author Virginia Woolf, who was bipolar and who, after several attempts to take her own life, ended up committing suicide when she was 59.
Twitter was used to develop the project because it is a platform where, though the user goes public, he or she acts in an “almost anonymous” way, given that it makes people “talk more freely or leave an impression about such matters,” Fabio Palma, executive director of Bzsys, the company that designed the algorithm, told EFE.
Experiments with the program have been in the works since last year, but since February it has been functioning officially and, up to now, is only used in Portuguese. Since then it has detected almost 300,000 cases that caused concern.
Studies by the Brazilian Health Ministry have revealed that the risk of suicide drops by 14 percent when people who have those tendencies receive psychosocial care.
“Brief interventions can help people suffering that kind of depression and are often enough to save their lives,” Barros said.