Congressman Don Beyer aims to further improve suicide prevention with AI

Rep. Don Beyer (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Congressman Don Beyer plans to apply his growing AI knowledge to help improve the nation’s work on suicide prevention.

The congressman said that he is trying to figure out a way to use artificial intelligence to improve suicide hotlines. After enrolling part-time at George Mason University to pursue a master’s in AI, to learn how to regulate its use, he said he realized that AI could be beneficial in other areas.

Beyer said he wants to use this technology to analyze the current database of hotline callers, specifically those who have attempted to or died by suicide, for any possible triggers in the their lives. Some hotlines currently task this job to people.

“There are a whole group of people that when somebody dies by suicide, they do the autopsy, not on the body, but on their lives,” said Beyer. “What was happening in their lives?”

That autopsy, however, is done after the caller dies. Beyer said that he wants AI to identify those triggers in real time, while the caller is on the line with a counselor, improving the quality of counseling they provide. Some hotlines around the country already do this, he notes.

He does not envision AI models talking to callers; rather, they would pull from past hotline conversations to simulate crisis calls, helping counselors learn what to expect and say in crisis conversations.

“They’ve already fed those conversations in,” Beyer told ARLnow. “They know exactly what the typical conversation is going to be like for somebody in crisis and what the best conversations are going to be like for somebody who is on the counselor side.”

Beyer said that he believes this will allow training to run more efficiently and make working with the counselor’s availability easier.

“The hope and the expectation are now that this is going to greatly speed up the training process and also make it so that you don’t have to just be in a conference room for Saturday and Sunday doing it, you can practice at home,” said Beyer.

Beyer has tackled suicide prevention at the legislative level before. The congressman worked to allocate more federal funds to improve suicide prevention resources and launched the “Campaign to Prevent Suicide Act” to bring awareness to suicide and how to prevent people from dying this way.

“Just shy of 50,000 people last year died by suicide in the United States and that’s a rising number sadly,” said Beyer.

Beyer has also tried implementing preventative measures with the U.S. Department of Transportation. Last year, he re-introduced the Barriers to Suicide Act, which would require USDOT to establish a program facilitating the installation of suicide deterrents such as prevention nets and barriers on bridges. This act has not moved since being referred to a transportation subcommittee last summer.

Beyer said he’ll continue to look for more ways to improve suicide preventative measures while looking at the benefits that AI can provide.

“We’re just at the beginning, we’re constantly talking to the main four suicide groups in the country saying, ‘What can we do next?’ so that the 50,000 becomes 45,000 and so on,” he said.