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Could smartphones hold the key to preventing suicide?

There have been plenty of scare stories about mobile phones damaging our mental health, but could they actually help us tackle one of the biggest mental health crises we face today?  

According to one recent survey, on average we touch our mobile phone screens 2,617 times on a typical day. That’s close to one million clicks, swipes and scrolls each year.

It’s no surprise, then, that our phones know an awful lot about us – our daily routine, who we’re closest to, where we spend our time, what we care about.

And now scientists are investigating whether we could add another, very important, piece of information to that list: what our mental health is like. In one study with huge potential, researchers are even asking if our phones could help to reverse soaring global suicide rates. 

Suicide is the second biggest killer of young people worldwide. Only accidents claim more young lives. This crisis must be brought under control – and research must be at the heart of the solution.

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Supported by MQ, a group of researchers in the US, UK and Australia are in the early stages of a pioneering project they hope will help us predict and prevent suicide attempts. 

In the first part of the project, the team led by Dr Anne-Laura Van Harmelen at the University of Cambridge are studying brain images and clinical data from over 4,000 people, looking to identify factors that could make people more likely to try and take their own lives.

Once they have that information, the team’s ambition is to carry out a second part of the project, during which they would work with people who have either attempted suicide recently or given it serious thought.

They’re aiming to gather information from smartphones, special smart wristbands and new technologies that capture and analyse phone sensors, keyboard interaction and voice and facial analysis. 

And with this data the researchers would aim to find patterns that will dramatically extend their knowledge of why people have suicidal feelings and what changes when people start to struggle.

“Research into suicide has always relied on people having to recall their feelings and experiences after they’ve happened,” says MQ-funded researcher Dr Mario Alvarez, Director of ehealth at Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, University of Melbourne: “This leads to unreliable results, because people are often unaware of the sequence of events that led to the suicide attempt.

"Our inability to understand what happens right before a suicide attempt has been an achilles heel of suicide interventions. Using mobile phones would enable us to take a completely different approach. It means we could collect information in real time, transforming our ability to predict those who are risk and offer vital help when a young person needs it."

Across the globe, MQ is funding groundbreaking projects like this – but much more support for mental health research is urgently needed.

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The researchers’ initial plan would be to gather two distinct types of data.

Passive information would be collected without people needing to do anything. In previous studies, lack of sleep, spending time alone and even changes in people’s voices have all been linked to suicidal thoughts, so mobiles could be used to monitor things like sleep data, variations in people’s speech and information on whether people are in social spaces or by themselves. 

Passive information could also include basic health data – like heart rates, levels of physical activity, breathing rates and so on – that hasn’t yet been linked to suicidal thoughts, but which might just hold the answers we desperately need.

And alongside this passive data, young people would also collect ‘active’ information about how they were feeling.

“Our hope would be to understand participants’ mental states throughout each day,” says Mario, “and to see how they communicated with others online – through social media, for example.

“With every piece of information, we will gain a more complete picture, enabling us to see the interplay between different factors that could influence suicidal thoughts. And having such wide-ranging data would also mean we got a very good picture of what normal looks like for people.

“Crucially, we will see when unusual changes occur that mean someone is in imminent danger, enabling people to take life-saving action. This has never been achieved in suicide prevention programs and can revolutionalise the way tackle suicide in young people ”

Today, suicide is the leading cause of death among young men in the UK. Only through research can we shape a tomorrow where people get the right support – before suicide seems like the only option.

These MQ researchers aren’t the only scientists asking how mobiles could help us understand suicide. The Merseycare NHS Trust has committed itself to a zero suicide policy, aiming to prevent suicides completely among the people who use its services by 2020.

As part of that pledge, its staff are working with researchers at Stanford University, looking to develop an app doctors could use to monitor people at risk of suicide around the clock.

If a patient missed an appointment, travelled to a well-known suicide spot or used language in messages that suggested they were feeling low, the doctors could immediately provide help.

Inspired by research, technology has the power to transform our understanding of suicide – and our ability to respond.

Every time someone takes their own life, it means that person couldn’t get the support or comfort they desperately needed. It means opportunities to help were missed. It means families and friends are left to cope with a shock they never truly recover from, plagued by thoughts of things they could have done differently, warning signs they could have spotted, help they could have given.

We won’t ignore this painful, awful situation. We won’t ignore the rising rates of suicide across the globe.

Instead, we’ll do everything we can to build our understanding of suicide and help develop more effective support for people at risk and people who find themselves struggling.

At MQ, we’re giving mental health research the kickstart it needs after years of neglect and underfunding. And we need you to become part of the movement of people who are pushing for progress.   

Last updated: 19 October 2017

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