A team of local software developers have released an app they hope will help people suffering from depression or thoughts of suicide before it’s too late.
Charleston native Ricky Kirkendall, 22, began developing the CheckUp app as his senior capstone project at Marshall University, where he’s finishing up a degree in computer science. He and fellow George Washington High School alumni Logan Spears, Sam McLaughlin and Matt Brumley, who work for Morgantown-based software development company Syntropy, have been working on the app since January.
It was released to the public Monday — coincidentally, just hours before news broke that actor and comedian Robin Williams had committed suicide in his California home.
As public attention is turned to suicide and the ways it can be prevented, he hopes the CheckUp project can gain attention — and ultimately save lives.
“Out of everything I’ve worked on with the American Foundation for the Blind or with the water crisis, this is the one I’m most proud of because it’s about introducing the idea of algorithmic suicide prevention,” Kirkendall said. “To the best of my knowledge, it seems to be a new idea. I don’t think anything like this has publicly existed yet.”
The program works by scanning the Twitter timeline of anyone who has signed up at checkupapp.org. Using an algorithm Kirkendall developed, the software scans tweets every two minutes for language that indicates self-harming or suicidal behavior or thoughts. If a tweet is “flagged,” an email is sent to anyone who is following that person and using the app, warning them that their friend may be having suicidal thoughts.
“The way the service is set up, if you sign up for the service with your Twitter account, you will link your Twitter account to the CheckUp app on Twitter, and that’s the last you’ll hear from it until a problem is detected,” Kirkendall explained. “If it detects one that falls under the criteria I’ve explained, it will send you a notification by email and say, ‘Hey, this person just tweeted this. They might be having a rough time. Maybe you should check up on this person.’ And then it will have a link to their Twitter account.”
Kirkendall said he started developing the app after an acquaintance of his committed suicide recently. Kirkendall said he was shocked when he went back to that person’s Twitter page and found that the person had tweeted many signs that he was depressed and thinking of suicide, but no one had reached out to him on the social network.
Kirkendall found research conducted at Brigham-Young University in 2013 that indicated there is a correlation between the rate of suicide and the number of tweets that threaten suicide or mention risk factors, such as bullying. Researchers evaluated millions of tweets from all 50 states over a three-month period. Using an algorithm that scanned tweets for certain key phrases related to suicide, researchers found that each state’s ratio of suicidal tweets “strongly correlated” with the state’s actual suicide rate. Social networks Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube and Tumblr all have methods for users to notify the company about a suicidal post. According to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, all five social media networks respond by sending suicidal users a message with the Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number: 1-800-273-8255. Facebook may even connect suspected suicidal users directly with a Lifeline counselor.
These services depend on a user seeing the suicidal content and reporting it. Kirkendall said the CheckUp app intelligently looks for suicidal content.
First, the CheckUp software looks for key phrases, many of which were derived from the Brigham-Young University research, and some of which he came up with on his own. The software attempts to discern suicidal or self-harm content from other phrases.
“For example, if it has the words ‘cut myself’ and it doesn’t have the words ‘accidentally’ or ‘shaving,’ then it would be flagged,” Kirkendall said.
If the software finds a tweet that meets the first criteria, then it conducts “sentiment analysis” on the user’s profile. It scans some of the user’s other tweets and determines whether there is a trend of negative tweets.
“We’ve kind of trained the computer to detect positive and negative sentiments, so ‘I’m having a great day,’ that’s a positive sentiment, ‘this day kind of sucks,’ that’s a negative sentiment,” Kirkendall said. “It goes through and looks at those particular metrics of the last couple of tweets leading up to the one flagged as being suicidal.”
Once an alert is sent, it’s up to users to act on it and reach out to their friend. But Huntington psychiatrist Mary H. Patrick said many times, those in a position to help don’t do it for various reasons.
Patrick said people may think they don’t know the person well enough to reach out. They may think they’ll offend the person. They may be held back by the negative stigma that surrounds suicide. They may simply not know what to do.
She said the CheckUp app may encourage users to reach out to those in need because it actively informs them of a problem and suggests how they can help.
“All human beings want to feel loved, and when people are depressed, typically they are very critical of themselves and they’re not loving themselves very much,” Patrick said. “If you were in that person’s shoes, what would make you feel loved? That could just be all that person needs to keep them from hurting themselves.
“By making a phone call, and if you’re coming across in a loving way and not a critical way, they’re going to receive your message OK.”
Patrick said intervention is key to stopping suicidal thoughts before they spiral into suicidal actions, and that the CheckUp app is a “very novel idea” that could educate people on how to help a person with suicidal thoughts.
“You can reach out to them with a phone call or in any way, and I think it would be fine to acknowledge their tweets and acknowledge they aren’t feeling good, that something’s going on,” Patrick said. “Say ‘I’m here for you’ and ask if they can talk about it. Say you want them to know that someone cares.”
Patrick said if a friend is worried about imminently hurting themselves or committing suicide, they should be taken to an emergency room immediately.
Kirkendall said he calls CheckUp a “project,” rather than an “app,” because he hopes the developer community can help it mature and reach as many people as possible. He said the project is in a closed beta right now because the server it is hosted on can only handle a certain number of users at a time. But with more server space and financial support, the project could become a nationwide resource.
“All the code is completely open-source and free to use, free to modify,” Kirkendall said. “We want to perpetuate the idea it is an ongoing project because there’s certainly more work to be done.”
Kirkendall has developed two apps for the American Foundation for the Blind and built an online “water map” for clean water distribution locations following the Freedom Industries chemical leak in January. He said this latest project is the one he’s most proud of because of its life-saving potential.
“I don’t want it to just be us moving forward,” Kirkendall said. “I want to take it and run with it, and I want to see this kind of service emerge from well-funded, maybe government-backed organizations. You’ve got the folks doing the suicide prevention hotline. You’ve got a lot of suicide prevention initiatives out there, and this is an idea I would like them to adopt. I am proud to have introduced this idea, and I think it has potential.”
Kirkendall and his team are currently accepting new users on the program’s waiting list at checkupapp.org. They hope to evaluate usage over the coming months and figure out how much money they would need to expand the program, and then start seeking grant monies or donations to open the project to more users.
Contact writer Marcus Constantino at 304-348-1796 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/amtino.