Could a smartphone app reveal someone’s risk for suicide by the sound of their voice?

MELVILLE, N.Y. — Could the sound of someone’s voice help to identify their risk of committing suicide? Researchers from the University of Maryland are working on a potential vocal tracking app that could detect worrying changes in a patient’s symptoms of depression.

More than 260 million people worldwide suffer from Major Depression Disorder (MDD) while another 20 million have schizophrenia, according to the World Health Organization. Doctors say MDD and schizophrenia are among the most common precursors to suicide and, according to a 2018 report, suicide is the second-leading cause of death in children and young adults in the United States.

What happens to human speech patterns when someone is depressed?

Professor Carol Espy-Wilson says the coordination of someone’s speech gestures reflects their mental health status. Her study explains that a speech inversion system maps acoustic signals to vocal track variables, showing the timing and spatial movement of speech gestures. When someone is dealing with depression, this speech coordination changes.

Depression is accompanied by psychomotor slowing. As a result, they cannot think as fast, and their speaking rate is slowed with more and longer pauses than if they are not depressed,” Prof. Espy-Wilson says in a media release.

“What this means is that there is less coproduction of neighboring sounds and more of the sounds are fully articulated, that is, the articulators reach their targets.”

Study authors add the use of machine-learning techniques can help provide data for a deep-learning model for mental health classification. Prof. Espy-Wilson says that the goal of the research is to use technology, perhaps in the form of a smartphone app, to help patients and those around them stay informed about their mental health — something the professor believes would have a “huge” impact on the world.

“Ideally, therapists will give the app to patients who suffer with MDD when they are in remission or only have mild depression,” the researcher adds. “That is, they are in a state where they are likely to use it regularly, so their mental health status can be tracked, and the appropriate people will be alerted if the app detects that the severity of the depression is increasing.”

“In that way, we hope there will be intervention before their depression increases to a level where they may consider suicide,” Espy-Wilson concludes.

Researchers presented their findings at the 180th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.