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AI could help reduce military suicides, nonprofit hopes


A new project by a North Carolina nonprofit group is using artificial intelligence to better understand and maybe reduce military suicide. The project is funded by the VA. It analyzes mobile phone data from people who take their own lives. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Like many of us, Army Captain Jim Gallagher could scarcely be separated from his smartphone.

AMANDA GALLAGHER: He and I were constantly texting throughout the day.

PRICE: That's his wife, Amanda. She lives in North Carolina with their three young daughters.

GALLAGHER: And he would be on Twitter all the time, and he was just always using his phone, like, to the point where we could get into arguments about, like, you know, you need to get off the phone and pay attention to what's going on here.

PRICE: Jim Gallagher was third generation military, a West Point graduate who had fought in Iraq. Serving was everything to him, but he missed his first chance at promotion to major. He was devastated. He began talking less. He wasn't smiling as much. One night, he just curled up on the bed and broke down.

GALLAGHER: And I said, you know, you need to go talk to somebody about this, and he promised that he would reach out to somebody. So we found online, like, a texting hotline that you could text, and you don't even have to give your real name and stuff. And he said he was going to do that, and that week he was better.

PRICE: That Saturday night, he wanted to make dinner.

GALLAGHER: And he made my favorite foods, and he even made stuffed mushrooms. And he hates mushrooms, but he knows that I like them.

PRICE: Later, they were watching TV. He got up and told her he was going to the bathroom. Instead, he went into the garage and took his own life. Gallagher left his iPhone on the kitchen counter and wasn't wearing the Apple Watch that had become a constant presence on his wrist.

GALLAGHER: So it actually surprised me when I found it in the house afterwards.

PRICE: Now, his two laptops, tablet and that phone, likely even containing data about his heart function and sleep patterns uploaded from his watch, are in the hands of the Black Box Project. The initiative, which won a $3 million VA grant, will use artificial intelligence to look for patterns in data from the devices of people who die by suicide.

CHRIS FORD: Our digital devices, especially smartphones, know more about us than things we've shared with even those we're closest to.

PRICE: Chris Ford leads the nonprofit group Stop Soldier Suicide, which runs the project.

FORD: The inner thoughts, feelings and behaviors, the things that I'm doing at 2 in the morning when I can't sleep - those don't get shared with our intimate partners. Those don't get shared with our parents or our friends.

PRICE: Ford says the devices, especially phones, contain some obvious data that might be useful - like texts, emails, browser and location histories. But the AI is also looking for patterns in less obvious data that might correlate with suicide risk - things researchers may not have even thought of yet. The project is just getting up to speed but may already be about to disrupt some long-held beliefs among suicide researchers, such as the rarity of suicide notes.

FORD: Most research studies indicate suicide notes happen 15 or 20% of the time. We're finding drafted and deleted suicide notes in at least half the devices.

DUSTIN MILLADO: This is actually that phone...

PRICE: Dustin Millado, the digital forensics examiner for the project, points at a Samsung phone. It's hooked to a password-breaking device. Then he turns to his computer screen. A wavering line shows the former owner used the phone more than twice as much as normal in his last few months and in a distinctive, repeated wave pattern.

MILLADO: And that would indicate maybe something or some kind of activity was going on that's also similar because of the fact that the angles are the same.

PRICE: Those unshared suicide messages, he said, often are found in a phone's notes app or even in an audio or video recording.

MILLADO: It almost seems like they want to tell somebody what's going on, but they don't really want to tell, like, a person.

PRICE: Experts say results from the project obviously could apply to the nonmilitary population, too, with caveats about the differences in the two groups, but they caution against expecting too much from technology. Craig Bryan is a professor at Ohio State University.

CRAIG BRYAN: Suicide has so many different possible combinations of variables and factors that - there sort of are an infinite number of pathways to get there.

PRICE: He says predictive, analytic large-data approaches probably are never going to be able to forecast when, say, a specific person is going to attempt suicide, but like a tornado warning, the data could help signal when it's more likely.

GALLAGHER: All of his possessions are really important to me, and they seem like such a limited resource.

PRICE: Amanda Gallagher is among more than 100 family members so far who have loaned devices to the project.

GALLAGHER: Like, I have to repost the same pictures every year on his birthday because there aren't any new pictures.

PRICE: She says it was stressful to part with her husband's devices, even temporarily, but if it can prevent even one suicide, it's worth it.

GALLAGHER: I knew that if there was a chance that another woman didn't have to sit in her child's bedroom and explain to them that their dad wasn't coming home because I was willing to let the phone go, then I should let the phone go.

PRICE: And with it, all that data that somehow now isn't just ones and zeros. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C.

KELLY: And if you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline - just those three digits, 988. If you're a veteran, dial 988, then press one, or text 838255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.