An AI Rescue Team is Tackling Depression Via Dr Li Wenliang’s Last Social Media Post

An AI program has been designed to detect negative feelings under Dr Li Wenliang's last post on Weibo and alert mental health services

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1:57 AM HKT, Thu December 31, 2020 1 mins read

It’s been 10 months since doctor Li Wenliang, who was among the first to raise the alarm over a new virus that we now know as Covid-19, lost his life to the novel coronavirus he was treating in others. Yet his name continues to be associated with helping others, and one of his social media accounts still buzzes with activity toward this aim.

His last post on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo has become a place where people share grief, mourn, express happiness, or simply depart random thoughts on a regular basis. The post has accumulated more than 1 million comments in just the last three months.


“I’m finally diagnosed with Covid-19,” reads Doctor Li’s last post on February 1 2020, six days before his death (image: Weibo)

Li’s last post has also seen a number of comments related to depression and even people sharing suicidal thoughts: “So sad, I’ve been through so much this year,” “Doctor Li, I feel like I can’t hold it any longer,” “I know the things I’m worrying now may be nothing tomorrow, but what should I do as I still feel crying? I’m so depressed and sad every day.”

Comments like these have drawn attention from a specialized rescue team led by Huang Zhisheng, a senior artificial intelligence (AI) researcher at the Free University Amsterdam. Huang founded the Tree Hole Rescue team in 2018 in the hope of helping people with depression and suicidal tendencies. A “tree hole” is what people call places where they dump secrets on Chinese social media.

The team has specifically designed an AI program monitoring comments under Li’s post as well as the community group for Covid-19 patients on Weibo to detect negative feelings triggered by the pandemic. It automatically ranks the posts it finds by suffering index and the risk of suicide. If the suffering index is judged to exceed level 12 and the risk of suicide exceeds level 5, the team will receive a notification and get volunteers involved.


So far, the program has provided assistance and treatment for more than 400 people, according to Chinese news site Quanxianzai. Now, the team has gathered over 600 volunteers across the country. “My grandparents are all infected with the new coronavirus. My parents are not with me. I am the only one left. I might as well die,” reads a message from a teenager who was later saved by a volunteer.

China has seen an increased risk of depression this year, a trend that is largely linked with the Covid-19 outbreak and ensuing lockdowns. According to data from China’s leading search engine Baidu, searches for mental health related keywords such as “psychological help” reached a 10-year high at the beginning of 2020.

The Tree Hole Rescue project employs similar methods to music app NetEase, which launched an anti-depression campaign in August. The site employs mental health professionals and volunteers to reach out and provide free online consultations for users in need.

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