Can a Mobile App Prevent Suicide?

With over 40,000 lives lost each year, invention aims to help

It is a place most of us simply can’t imagine — a depth so low, a darkness so heavy, that taking one’s own life seems the only way out.

Suicide is something America has shied away from discussing for generations. Mainstream media tends to avoid covering it out of concern that others who may be contemplating such a tragic action might be motivated enough from the press coverage to try it themselves.

Yet the statistics are heartbreaking — and mental health experts along with many others affected by these losses refuse to stand by any longer. They want this mental health crisis fixed.

On average, 117 people commit suicide every day in America, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 2014, 42,773 Americans died from suicide — and those are just the cases reported. The stigma surrounding suicide often leads families to keep the tragedy to themselves. It is often referred to as the silent killer, especially among white men and our brave veterans.

For every suicide, 25 more people will attempt it.

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The statistics are daunting, yet the suicide rate continues to rise, especially among veterans. Those closest to the victims are often unaware there is even an issue. What can be done to prevent these tragedies?

Enter MindMe — a platform that aims to better connect therapists and their patients.

“It’s really hard for a lot of people to afford regular therapy,” said Dr. David Putrino, an assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

Knowing this, a colleague of Putrino’s reached out to him with an idea. Dr. Dimitris Kiosses, an associate professor of psychology, wanted to create a mobile application to help prevent suicide.

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Eighteen months ago, the two men assembled a team to create the app. MindMe is now in crowdfunding mode for which the team hopes to raise enough funds to enable better development and clinical tests to make the app a reality.

How It Works
Putrino said people in therapy often have to wait two to three weeks between appointments. During that time, a patient may be so overwhelmed with symptoms and events in their lives that they forget to properly deploy tools therapists have given them.

“By the time they get back to their session, the therapist can only be putting out fires,” Putrino told LifeZette.

When that happens, the therapist spends the session trying to work through emotions and spends less time working on solutions. And when that patient is potentially suicidal, the ability to intervene at the right time is crucial.

“The real goal of what we are trying to achieve with MindMe is to take the burden off the therapist,” Putrino said, adding that the app works with therapy and does not replace the therapist.

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He said therapists would prescribe the app to patients and then program it with personalized information. This includes check-in messages to see how patients are doing, and interactive responses in order to best provide solutions.

Reminders can also alert patients to remember the tools they learned in therapy, which can help them cope with hardships. It allows a therapist to record personalized video messages for patients. The patient can also program emergency contacts into it in the event of suicidal feelings or another crisis.

“We can help people remotely,” Putrino said. “We want to use this app to really expand the relationship between therapist and patient. We’re trying to change the sort of culture of thought around mental health care and therapy.”

New Way to Treat Mental Illness
Many professionals — understandably so — feel that nothing can substitute for expert professional help in person for those in a suicidal state.

Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent,” said it could be quite difficult, “maybe impossible, for a psychotherapist to read a patient’s true mental status through an electronic device void of facial affect, tone of voice and body language. The liability implications are potentially fraught with various loopholes and danger,” she added. “I would not endorse the use of such mobile app devices in psychotherapy practices with high-risk patients.”

Putrino noted the team simply hopes to deploy mental health care to more people — and said he is not a tech entrepreneur looking to make a fortune on the next big thing.

MindMe is among many efforts across the globe that seek to better recognize the signs in someone who may be suffering. Its goal is to destigmatize the seeking of care and help for mental health issues and provide better access to resources when despair sets in.

Putrino’s team is developing a test version of the app, and there are pilot trials underway, which they say are going well. Patients are given a tablet that includes the app, but the team wants to expand their studies to collect more data. The app needs to be proven effective and must comply with HIPAA standards. Additionally, there are technology costs involved in creating a secure platform that can facilitate all of the clinical information.

“It costs money. We really need the funds to get the science completely correct before we move on to anything larger. It’s very important to get the science right. This is about helping people.”

“It’s not an area that’s well-funded and it’s not an area that’s often talked about,” Putrino added.

Most people he encounters know of at least one person who has committed suicide, said Putrino. Chances are it is the same for most of us if we take the time to ask. With suicide rates on the rise, he hopes the team can secure funding quickly to determine the platform’s viability.

“We need to understand if this works and we need to understand fast,” Putrino said.

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