Smartphone Apps for Suicide Prevention a “Promising First Step”

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A scientific assessment of smartphone apps for suicide prevention has concluded the current options available represent a promising first step.

Earlier this year, the Psychiatric Times published an article citing research conducted by Dr. Mark Larsen and a team from the University of New South Wales in Australia into smartphone apps for suicide prevention. The article was relevant to those concerned with student welfare, as it coincided with the release of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health´s Annual Report (PDF) which showed an increased percentage of students seeking mental health services after “seriously considering a suicide attempt”.

Increases in student suicides and suicide attempts in recent years have been well chronicled. In 2013 a study published in the Journal of College Student Psychotherapy revealed suicide was the second most common cause of fatal injury among students in the 18-24 age bracket - only narrowly ahead of fatal injuries sustained in vehicle accidents. In fact, if alcohol-related fatalities were removed from the data, suicides accounted for 75% more deaths in student communities than any other cause.

What is so significant about the Center for Collegiate Mental Health´s data was that it was collected from four hundred institutions nationwide and is the largest and most comprehensive report on college students seeking mental health services to date. With regard to the percentage of students seeking mental health services after “seriously considering a suicide attempt”, this had increased year-on-year for five consecutive years from 23.8% in 2010 / 2011 to 33.2% in 2015 / 2016.

Can Smartphone Apps Help Prevent Student Suicides?

According to Dr. Larsen and his team, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of smartphone apps for suicide prevention despite his thorough scientific assessment. To conduct the assessment, Dr. Larsen and his team searched the Google Play Store and iPhone Store for any app tagged with the keyword “suicide”. The results were screened to exclude those referring to suicide non-literally (i.e. those tagged with the keyword “suicide” for gaming content) and those containing no “interactive” suicide content.

The remaining forty-nine were sorted into categories according to their characteristics. The majority offered quick ways to obtain peer support or crisis support - although it was noted none provided a facility to contact gatekeeper services. It was also noted few smartphone apps for suicide prevention had self-screening capabilities or contained accepted mental health strategies, and only one app included a follow up strategy. Generally, the apps also lacked privacy policies and locking mechanisms.

Despite the disappointing results - and the overall view that a lack of multifaceted suicide prevention strategies represented a missed opportunity - Dr. Larsen and his team concluded the number of smartphone apps for suicide prevention currently available was a positive sign and a step in the right direction. However, the positive tone of the conclusion came with a caveat that the assessment had revealed a small number of apps containing potentially harmful content or strategies.