Tree Hollow: making a difference and saving lives

Zhang Long
Tree Hollow is a non-profit organization that scours online chat groups for messages from people who are suicidal. It has saved almost 3,000 lives since 2018.
Zhang Long

Did you ever imagine that artificial intelligence could potentially save lives?

In March 2018, Huang Zhisheng, the former deputy dean of Wuhan University of Science and Technology's Big Data Research Department, stumbled upon a story about a person who had committed suicide due to depression; his social media account had turned into a platform for other users to air their dark thoughts.

Huang started a nonprofit organization, Tree Hollow Rescue Team, which analyzed messages with AI to identify those who may be prone to suicide.

Tree Hollow: making a difference and saving lives

Huang Zhisheng, founder of the NGO, Tree Hollow.

Tree Hollow gives people an online space to freely express their emotions anonymously.

Tree Hollow believes if a suicidal person can be reached within 13 seconds before they take their lives, they could be saved.

Huang's team and the volunteers are much closer to actually intervening with the person who might actually take their own life inside those all-important 13 seconds, thanks to AI.

Since 2018, Huang's team reportedly has prevented over 6,000 attempts at suicide, saving at least 3,000 lives.

Huang rated the risk of suicide into 10 categories; individuals who are found to be at risk at level 5 or higher will be actively watched. Members of the Tree Hollow team will step in to assist those who advance to level 9.

Their efforts haven't always been successful. The Tree Hollow crew assisted a suicidal dropout girl in March 2018. Initially, volunteers attempted to console the girl. However, just when it seemed that she had given up on the idea of suicide, she simply posted a farewell message on social media and vanished from view.

The girl's suicidal ideas were uncovered 47 days before she ended her own life.

After learning that suicidal individuals require companionship for an extended period, Huang bemoaned the girl's death and took a lesson from it. "We ought to develop the ability to hear their inner suffering and, if necessary, convince them to take professional help."

Huang's team has grown to over 900 volunteers, of which 300 are trained professionals from psychology departments or psychiatry departments of domestic hospitals. The remaining volunteers are doctors, college students, university workers, and law enforcement personnel.

Every intervention is like a race with death. Every day, the AI identifies roughly 50 people who are suicidal. Once detected, volunteers will try to get as much information as possible from the suicidal person’s social media accounts to prevent a tragedy.

The Tree Hollow team opened centers in Shanghai and Wuhan in May and April, respectively. Liu Jia, a volunteer, said one of the tasks is to join various Internet chat rooms where a large number of suicidal individuals hang out.

Tree Hollow: making a difference and saving lives

Tree Hollow opened a branch in Shanghai in May.

Liu discovered that many of the individuals in the groups are young people who feel hopeless about their jobs, relationships, and financial circumstances. A large number of them also experience depression. They appear to connect with one another in these groups, which allows them to open up.

Liu needs to reach out to people who are most inclined to take their own lives and try to talk them out of it.

Even after working in the position for many years, Liu still finds it difficult to determine whether to notify the authorities or not if the system flags a potential suicide. According to team policy, the person in charge must decide within 10 minutes if they will really commit suicide.

One August evening, the system alerted Liu about a girl who had posted that she was going somewhere quiet. She had uploaded a photo of her blood-covered wrist and a hospital diagnosis indicating that she had acute depression, which led the algorithm to classify her as having a level-10 suicide risk.

Based on past encounters, Liu deduced that her message was essentially a cry for help, a request to be noticed. A rescue squad was created as soon as Liu provided the team with the girl's information. They got in touch with the local police and the hospital where she was admitted.

Tree Hollow: making a difference and saving lives

A Tree Hollow volunteer interacts with a suicidal person.

Police officers arrived at the girl's residence at about 1am using the information provided by the team. She had already prepared the medication with which she intended to end her life. The crew was ultimately relieved when they received a call from the police at 2am indicating the girl had been stabilized and saved.

Depending on the complexity of the rescue, Tree Hollow has to establish a team of five to six people for each intervention. Some may simply be paranoid and act on impulse, while others may be suffering from a persistent psychiatric disorder, which can be more problematic, and the rescue can run anywhere from three months to years.

Given that the AI can identify up to 200 potential suicides and that each suicide rescue requires a five-person team, they face difficulties because they lack the necessary number of team members to effectively save everyone.

Huang's team can only assist one-tenth of them.

They face additional difficulties as a non-profit organization due to a lack of funding. The volunteers' zeal drives the efforts. Volunteers frequently leave due to the difficult nature of the rescue work.

Huang hopes to strengthen their real-world structure in the future and open more centers in other locations.

"Nothing is more important than saving a life. All of our efforts would be rewarded in the end."

Special Reports