The stakes are high when you work as a counsellor for a suicide prevention chat helpline. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The stakes are high when you work as a counsellor for a suicide prevention chat helpline. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

If you work for a suicide prevention chat helpline, a writer’s block could mean the difference between life and death, says Salim Salmi, who developed a tool for counsellors.

Writer’s block can be a nuisance. Every student who has ever needed to write an article can vouch for that. But a creative slowdown is more than just a bother if you work as a counsellor for a suicide prevention chat helpline. If you cannot come up with the right response when someone is thinking about ending his/her life, it is another ball game altogether. It can mean the difference between life and death.

Thousands of chats
For his master’s graduation project at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics & Computer Science, engineer Salim Salmi developed a support system for counsellors. The system, a computer programme, analyses thousands of previous chat conversations and uses natural language processing techniques (a form of artificial intelligence) to find similar chat situations for the counsellor to draw on. The goal is not to take the human counsellor out of the loop, but merely to assist him or her.

Salmi used the 113 Suicide Prevention database in The Netherlands. “Historically, people have always contacted helplines over the telephone, but with the advent of the internet, chat services have become increasingly popular,” says the young researcher. “Online chat helplines show approximately the same beneficial effects as telephone helplines.”

Salmi and his colleague Saskia Mérelle at 113 Suicide Prevention looked at seven months of chats spanning from March 2018 to September 2018. “The chat data were first filtered, removing all chats that had less than 20 interactions. In total, we used 17,773 conversations.” The results were published earlier this month in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

‘The counsellors still preferred to ask more experienced colleagues for help in complicated situations’

The system shows the counsellor the most similar parts of former chat conversations, enabling him or her to draw on approaches previously taken by colleagues.

The image below (taken from the article in the Journal of Medical Internet Research) shows some examples of suggestions generated by the software.

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The programme still needs fine tuning. The participating counsellors said that they still preferred to ask more experienced colleagues for help in complicated situations. But since that is not always possible, the programme could prove its added value. Salmi is now working as a PhD student at the National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science in Amsterdam and is improving the software.

 

  • Do you need help? Most of the times, 113 Suicide prevention can offer help in English as well. “You can call us or start a chat, and ask for someone who speaks English. If you are not currently in the Netherlands, but you need help, you can reach us through chat.”
  • Heb je hulp nodig? Denk je aan zelfmoord en wil je nu contact? Bel of chat anoniem met 113