Mobile Apps for Suicide Prevention

Mobile Apps for Suicide Prevention

Author: Dr. Jae Osenbach is a research psychologist at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).

As many of you may know, September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Coincidentally, about two weeks ago I came across a recently published article[1] that reviewed mobile apps developed specifically for the prevention of suicide.

The review included 27 suicide prevention apps for both iOS and Android platforms. The summary of their major findings for this group of mobile apps was that paid-for mobile apps were equivalent to the free mobile apps in terms of content and functionality. In addition, approximately one-fifth of the mobile apps collected either personal or location information, or both (depending on how you feel about privacy, this may or may not be a concern for you). Although the majority of the mobile apps that collected personal information also included security measures (e.g., passwords) to protect the information, there was no report on whether or not the collection of this information could be disabled. The majority of the mobile apps had functionalities that were easy to use and utilized user-friendly language.

There was little information, however, about the development and selection of content included in the mobile apps and how this content relates to suicide prevention (e.g., was content based upon evidence-based research or just chosen at random). In addition, almost half of the mobile apps lacked information about or connectivity to crisis hotlines, which the authors felt was likely the most important function of a suicide prevention mobile app. The authors of this review call for the creation of a set of best practices (with research-based evidence) to be used when developing a mobile app for such an important and sensitive area.

A challenge to creating useful materials for mobile apps, websites, or really anything intended to educate about military suicide, is that we really know very little about why it happens. A recent study looked at that very question by interviewing 72 active duty soldiers who reported having made at least one suicide attempt.[2] The findings were very instructive, and contradict some largely held beliefs about why people attempt suicide. First, most people in the study reported they had many reasons for the attempt, so assuming the first reason given is the “real one” as clinicians tend to do would be a mistake. In the study group, the reason given most often was to escape from intense emotional suffering. The reason given least often was to seek attention, a finding that significantly contradicts those who unsympathetically consider this manipulation.

But probably the most important thing to understand from this research is that the biggest cause of suicide may well be a failure to effectively express and communicate emotions. What does that tell you about the value of being able to “suck it up and deal with it?” New treatment methods are being developed for coping with suicide by teaching better problem-solving skills that enable people to do a better job of expressing to others how they really feel.

Hopefully this emerging understanding about why people choose suicide and development of more effective ways to prevent suicide will soon find their way into technologies that can be readily available and accessible like mobile apps and Web-based tools. While I hope you may never be in a circumstance where you would need to use such a mobile app, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have this information within hands-reach, installed on your smartphone or tablet.

AfterDeployment has a Suicide Prevention topic that includes resources on suicide prevention. These include video stories of personal encounters with suicide, a library with a bevy of evidence-based research content on the prevention of suicide, and other resources. In addition to using a suicide prevention mobile app, I definitely recommend bookmarking this page for easy access to a very solid set of tools.

[1] Aguirre, R. T. P., McCoy, M. K., Roan, M. (2013). Development of guidelines from a study of suicide prevention mobile applications (apps). Journal of Technology in Human Services, 31(3), 269-293. doi: 10.1080/15228835.2013.814750

[2] Bryan, C. J., Rudd, M. D., Wertenberger, E. (2013). Reasons for suicide attempts in a clinical sample of active duty soldiers. Journal of Affective Disorders, 144:148-52. Community Terms and Conditions

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