OGDEN — Just over seven years ago, Aaron Burgin lost a brother to suicide.
When his brother, Scott, died Dec. 3, 2009, his death triggered an avalanche of questions. Questions that mostly had no answers.
That didn’t stop Burgin from searching.
His brother was a member of the Utah National Guard and was preparing for deployment when he died at 18. Burgin, was less then two years older than his brother and was serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time.
Shortly after the suicide, Burgin wanted to get inside his brother’s head, so he got online to find anything that would clue him into his brother’s mindset. During his quest, he discovered something unnerving.
“I started doing some suicide-related searches on Google and everything that returned was pro self-harm,” Burgin said.
In other words, when he put in suicide-related queries, the search results were more likely to encourage suicide than prevent it.
“You’d type in certain phrases and instead of having like a suicide hotline or something coming up, you’d get something very pro self-harm,” Burgin said. “That’s changed quite a bit over the past three years, but I still think it can be better.”
In short, that’s how Burgin’s developing nonprofit Suicide Sucks was born.
Burgin said the company is designed to identify suicidal individuals through their online searches and social media activity, then advertise to them with educational material and suicide prevention resources.
He and a coder are working on a “neuroscience database” that collects the profiles and names anyone who has ever publicly posted certain key words that might signal a potential victim of suicide.
The company purchases the key words from Google Adwords and scans their usage by all profiles across all social media platforms, Burgin said.
Their custom-coded program analyzes the posts, then searches and flags the ones with the most risk factors. Then, those individuals are flooded with suicide prevention material, similar to other personalized advertising seen on the internet.
“Basically, we give them a library of content that responds to the need they’re demonstrating,” he said, noting the technology is constantly evolving and getting smarter.
“Once we know who we are focusing on, we begin testing methods of engagement and we assess our progress and our rate of success — just as any online marketing company would their advertisements,” he said.
According to the Utah Department of Health, suicide passed unintentional injuries as the leading cause of death among Utah kids age 10-17 in 2013. A 2015 report from the nonprofit Common Sense Media says teens spend nine hours per day online.
“The more and more we go into this online world, the easier social rejection is received,” Burgin said. “Quite a few people do use public social media posts as like a cry for help or even a suicide note.”
Dr. David Johnson, a clinical psychologist with the Ogden Center for Change, has collaborated with Burgin and thinks he’s on to something.
“He’s shared his vision with me and I think it’s a really novel approach,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s center specializes in evidence-based treatment of things like Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. He said Burgin’s program will help bridge the gap between technology and suicide prevention.
Burgin’s company is still in its infancy, but he envisions having franchise websites all across the globe, with individual owners having access to his data to help stop suicide where ever they live.
“I know the pain and the darkness that comes (to suicide survivors) and I don’t want anyone else to go through that,” he said. “The emptiness, the guilt, the regret. There are a whole slew of emotions that come from death alone, but you compound that by a factor of at least 10 when you understand the choice was voluntarily made.”
For more information on Burgin’s company, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The National Suicide Prevention Life Line is 1-800-273-8255.