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Monitoring veterans' online behavior to predict suicide

Friday - 7/5/2013, 4:15pm  ET

WASHINGTON - A new social project is hoping to use social media posts to predict suicide among America's veterans.

A group of veterans is volunteering to have researchers comb through their online profiles, searching for specific language. It's part of a study looking for links between language and suicide.

Called the Durkheim Project, is the first of its kind not only to look for lingual cues that predict suicidal tendencies, but to research behavior using social networking sites.

"We're actually not looking so much for the farewell goodbye sort of message. We're not looking specifically for that. That's a 911 issue ... What were the phrases that were used far before that occurred and look at those phrases as risk factors they might not even have known were risk factors," says study director Chris Poulin.

As the data is collected, it's analyzed and stored at a medical facility to ensure the participants' privacy. Then researchers monitor the content and behavior of the profiles in real time looking for language patterns typical of suicidal people.

The project will cross-reference data with the participants' medical backgrounds, which may find a history of concussions, family stresses, PTSD and other factors that have been linked to suicide in the military, Poulin says.

In February, a study released by the Department of Veterans Affairs showed daily suicide rates of veterans ages 18 to 22.

The project is named for Emile Durkheim who was a sociologist who studied suicide statistics in 1897. His book classified victims into different types and found correlations between their lifestyles and the likelihood of they might commit suicide.

What's unique about the program beyond its goal is it's consent form, Poulin says. The project is still short of its goal of reaching 100,000 veterans to participate. But if they do, the vets don't have pages upon pages of consent forms to read -- there is one page and it is clear, Poulin says.

"I'm proud of the fact that we're opt in, opt out. So most systems aren't like that. Most systems are opt in but then you're stuck. With ours, you can get out of it," Poulin says of the participating veterans' options.

Poulin got involved with the project after losing friends to suicide. He says the study is not only far from trival, but hopes it will help many people.

See more specifics about how the program works here:

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