How suicide prevention is getting a boost from artificial intelligence: Exclusive

By TONY MORRISON, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Suicide prevention is getting a boost from artificial intelligence.

The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth, has launched a “Crisis Contact Simulator” to help train counselors and prepare them to support youth in crisis.

Developed in collaboration with Google, the first-of-its-kind technology is an AI-powered counselor training tool that simulates digital conversations and allows trainees to practice realistic conversations with youth personas.

“Riley,” the organization’s first Crisis Contact Simulator persona, emulates messages from a teen in North Carolina who feels anxious and depressed. In addition to Riley, the organization is currently developing a variety of personas that represent a wide range of life situations, backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities and risk levels.

The Crisis Contact Simulator is the culmination of the organization’s multi-year collaboration with Google through the Google AI Impact Challenge. In total, the collaboration included $2.7 million in grants and the support of nearly 30 Google Fellows who worked alongside The Trevor Project’s team to introduce machine learning and natural language processing into The Trevor Project’s platforms.

In addition to the simulator, the Trevor Project told ABC News’ Good Morning America that the collaboration also resulted in an AI-powered Risk Assessment tool, which helps the organization assess suicide risk and facilitates connections between the highest risk youth and a crisis counselor more quickly.

The organization said they continue to scale its operations and grow its impact by innovating its crisis services and making strategic investments in staff, technology and infrastructure.

Ana Nieto, product marketing manager for Google, told Good Morning America, “The Crisis Contact Simulator trains more volunteers, helping even more LGBTQ youth to receive the immediate care they need. I continue to look to this project as the standard for how AI can have real life impact on marginalized communities.”

The Crisis Contact Simulator is just the newest addition to an already-impressive array of counselor training programs for The Trevor Project’s free, confidential, and 24/7 digital crisis services, including existing tools like TrevorChat and TrevorText. In addition to participating in role-plays with staff instructors, trainees complete digital role-play conversations with the Crisis Contact Simulator. Trainees learn about counseling skills, LGBTQ+ identity and more, and complete a number of role-plays to prepare them to speak with real situations of youth in crisis.

“At The Trevor Project we’re leveraging technology and AI to train more volunteer counselors and save more young LGBTQ lives,” CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project Amit Paley told Good Morning America.

Paley added, “The past year has been difficult for everyone, but we know LGBTQ+ youth have faced unique challenges. At times, our crisis services volume has spiked to double our pre-COVID volume and we estimate that at least one LGBTQ young person attempts suicide every 45 seconds.”

“We’ve invested in new technology and AI that will enable us to build capacity and serve even more youth in crisis with a consistently high quality of care,” he said.

In a press release, The Trevor Project reports that they currently have more than 700 digital volunteer crisis counselors in total and trains a new counselor cohort each month. In the U.S. alone, the organization estimates more than 1.8 million LGBTQ+ youth seriously consider suicide each year. The Trevor Project said they aim to triple its digital volunteer crisis counselors in 2021 and “eventually grow the pool by 10x, significantly increasing the number of LGBTQ+ youth served each year.”

The organization prides themselves on noting that LGBTQ+ young people who contact The Trevor Project will always speak to a highly trained human crisis counselor, available 24/7 and for free.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization said it underwent a rapid, massive tech transformation in 2020 to move its physical call centers in New York City and Los Angeles to completely remote operations for the first time ever to ensure its crisis services remained 24/7 and uninterrupted for LGBTQ+ youth.

Young people in search of support in their identities can contact The Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeline 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386 or by texting START to 678678.

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