Background: Early identification and intervention are imperative for suicide prevention. However, at-risk people often neither seek help nor take professional assessment. A tool to automatically assess their risk levels in natural settings can increase the opportunity for early intervention.
Objective: The aim of this study was to explore whether computerized language analysis methods can be utilized to assess one’s suicide risk and emotional distress in Chinese social media.
Methods: A Web-based survey of Chinese social media (ie, Weibo) users was conducted to measure their suicide risk factors including suicide probability, Weibo suicide communication (WSC), depression, anxiety, and stress levels. Participants’ Weibo posts published in the public domain were also downloaded with their consent. The Weibo posts were parsed and fitted into Simplified Chinese-Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (SC-LIWC) categories. The associations between SC-LIWC features and the 5 suicide risk factors were examined by logistic regression. Furthermore, the support vector machine (SVM) model was applied based on the language features to automatically classify whether a Weibo user exhibited any of the 5 risk factors.
Results: A total of 974 Weibo users participated in the survey. Those with high suicide probability were marked by a higher usage of pronoun (odds ratio, OR=1.18, P=.001), prepend words (OR=1.49, P=.02), multifunction words (OR=1.12, P=.04), a lower usage of verb (OR=0.78, P<.001), and a greater total word count (OR=1.007, P=.008). Second-person plural was positively associated with severe depression (OR=8.36, P=.01) and stress (OR=11, P=.005), whereas work-related words were negatively associated with WSC (OR=0.71, P=.008), severe depression (OR=0.56, P=.005), and anxiety (OR=0.77, P=.02). Inconsistently, third-person plural was found to be negatively associated with WSC (OR=0.02, P=.047) but positively with severe stress (OR=41.3, P=.04). Achievement-related words were positively associated with depression (OR=1.68, P=.003), whereas health- (OR=2.36, P=.004) and death-related (OR=2.60, P=.01) words positively associated with stress. The machine classifiers did not achieve satisfying performance in the full sample set but could classify high suicide probability (area under the curve, AUC=0.61, P=.04) and severe anxiety (AUC=0.75, P<.001) among those who have exhibited WSC.
Conclusions: SC-LIWC is useful to examine language markers of suicide risk and emotional distress in Chinese social media and can identify characteristics different from previous findings in the English literature. Some findings are leading to new hypotheses for future verification. Machine classifiers based on SC-LIWC features are promising but still require further optimization for application in real life.