The Hidden Depths of Suicidal Discourse: Network Analysis and Natural Language Processing Unmask Uncensored Expression


The socially unattractive and stigmatizing nature of suicidal thought and behavior (STB) makes it especially susceptible to censorship across most modern digital communication platforms. The ubiquitous integration of technology with day-to-day life has presented an invaluable opportunity to leverage unprecedented amounts of data to study STB, yet the complex etiologies and consequences of censorship for research within mainstream online communities render an incomplete picture of STB manifestation. Analyses targeting online written content of suicidal users in environments where fear of reproach is mitigated may provide novel insight into modern trends and signals of STB expression. Complete written content of N = 192 users, including n = 48 identified as potential suicide completers/highest-risk users (HRUs), on the pro-choice suicide forum, Sanctioned Suicide, was modeled using a combination of lexicon-based topic modeling (EMPATH) and exploratory network analysis techniques to characterize and highlight prominent aspects of censorship-free suicidal discourse. Modeling of over 2 million tokens across 37,136 forum posts found higher frequency of positive emotion and optimism among HRUs, emphasis on methods seeking and sharing behaviors, prominence of previously undocumented jargon, and semantics related to loneliness and life adversity. This natural language processing (NLP)- and network-driven exposé of online STB subculture uncovered trends that deserve further attention within suicidology as they may be able to bolster detection, intervention, and prevention of suicidal outcomes and exposures.

Digital Health