09/26/2014 03:30 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

Can Crowdsourcing Play a Role in Preventing Suicide?

John Lund via Getty Images

Some of today's most successful online platforms are powered by crowdsourcing. Google, Wikipedia, and Kickstarter, to name just a few, work by coordinating the collective behaviors and motivations of thousands, if not millions, of people on the Internet. It's an incredibly versatile approach. But can it be used to support our emotional health, and maybe even protect us from depression before it takes hold?

It is clear that depression exacts a great toll in human suffering, lost productivity, and in some cases lives tragically lost to suicide. Over 16 million adults in the U.S. will develop depression this year alone. Many more will experience symptoms that do not quite rise to diagnosable levels but still hold them back in countless ways.

Established therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy can address distorted, negative thinking and can be extremely effective for disorders like depression and anxiety. But the demand for these treatments exceeds the resources available. New innovations are sorely needed to fill the gaps, not to replace existing models of treatment, but to extend basic practices of mental well-being to the general public.

As a Ph.D. student working at the MIT Media Lab, my first instinct was to approach this problem using hi-tech, automated solutions (artificial intelligence, robots, etc). After years of tinkering, however, I came to the realization that the best resource for treating mental health is people, first and foremost. People are what make mental health interventions successful and engaging. The technology comes second, and perhaps always will. With this in mind, I created Panoply, a crowdsourcing application designed to help individuals manage negative, distorted thinking. It's powered by human intelligence, not artificial intelligence.

Here's how it works: you sign up, login, and post a description of something that's stressing you out. The app lets you really vent, and it encourages you to describe all the negative thoughts you might be feeling.

Within minutes, a crowd of helpers sends you anonymous feedback. The responses are often very short, but guided by techniques used in many modern therapies. The crowd offers emotional support and then helps you think more flexibly and adaptively about what is bothering you. If there are any distortions in your thinking, the crowd spots them and gently helps you dispute them. Additional crowd helpers then sweep in and review the work of their peers, making sure all responses are up to par and in the spirit of helping somebody.

For example, a young student on the platform wrote:

I really like my friends, but they're all kinda 'alpha male' types. Very extroverted and stuff. I'm not and I feel like a loser when I'm with my friends and I never

say anything.

Here are some quick 'reframes' that were composed by trained crowd helpers on the Panoply system:

  • Just because you don't prefer the spotlight doesn't make you a loser. You have just as much to offer the group and your fellow extroverted friends.
    • Maybe your friends prefer to be the center of attention and appreciate your quiet demeanor?
  • [Remember that] introverts observe and think more, which makes them more wise and creative!
  • Many gifted famous people are introverts -- Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, J.K. Rowling and many other people!

These may seem like fairly obvious observations at first glance, but positive interpretations such as these often elude us when we need them the most. We often need other people to remind us of these silver linings.

As a user, you can get crowd feedback the instant you need it, without betraying your anonymity. You can also return the favor and help other users. Indeed, the crowd helpers are not necessarily trained therapists or counselors. They are other people using the app, just like you. The app offers fun, quick training sessions that help you master useful ways of thinking (core cognitive therapy techniques). You are then given the opportunity to apply these techniques to other users. In trial studies with this technology, many of our users found this reciprocal model extremely engaging and therapeutic.

This application has been built and deployed in a randomized-controlled trial. The results are still forthcoming, but in the first study with this application, we found that depressed individuals using the system experienced a significant reduction in perseverative thinking -- a form of rumination that is often considered a risk factor for suicide.

If carefully studied further, it is possible that such a tool could be a great addition to traditional therapies, offering individuals a fun way to practice techniques they learn in the clinic. It might also help those who are at risk for disorders like depression but are not yet good candidates for traditional models of clinical care.

As with most computer-based psychotherapies, this type of platform is intended to be a self-help tool, not a formal mental health resource. Nonetheless, tools such as these could be extremely important and could help disseminate useful therapeutic techniques more widely.

To truly do something about the scourge of suicide, we need innovation from all sectors. As noted in previous posts in this series, advances are needed to better screen and treat depression. It is also important to tackle disorders like addiction that put people at risk for suicide. New, innovative technologies can play important roles in all these areas. But perhaps the most powerful asset is other people. When people come together and are given the chance to help each other in innovative new ways, the results can be truly revolutionary.

Stronger together, indeed.

Have a story about depression that you'd like to share? Email, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.