National anti-suicide plan emphasizes mobile technology

By: Neil Versel | Sep 11, 2012        

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SOURCE: Death data are from the National Vital Statistics System operated by the National Center for Health Statistics, CDC. Age-adjusted rates for 1950–2009 were obtained from WISQARS (www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars).

SOURCE: Death data are from the National Vital Statistics System operated by the National Center for Health Statistics, CDC. Age-adjusted rates for 1950–2009 were obtained from WISQARS (www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars).

A high-profile, public-private effort to prevent suicide is emphasizing the importance of mobile technology and social networks in identifying and helping people at risk of harming themselves.

“Technology is changing the way we communicate, and the pace at which new communications tools are introduced continues to accelerate. These media and applications include interactive educational and social networking websites, e-mail outreach, blogs, mobile apps, and programs using mobile devices and texting,” states the new National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.

The strategy, a joint project between the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, has a goal of saving 20,000 lives over the next five years. This plan is the first major update to the national strategy since it launched in 2001.

More than 37,000 people in the U.S. took their own lives in 2009, according to the federal Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), a rate of about 100 per day. Army Secretary John McHugh, who participated in a Washington press conference Monday, the 10th annual World Suicide Prevention Day, said that more U.S. service members die from suicide than from combat.

The strategy is targeting its outreach to at-risk populations, including military veterans, drug and alcohol abusers, native Americans, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender communities and young people in general. A key part of the strategy is to find ways of overcoming the stigma of discussing suicide. New communication platforms can help, according to the report and National Action Alliance participants.

“Mobile health apps have become increasingly popular, particularly among young adults. Other innovative applications currently being developed and applied to suicide prevention include virtual worlds, gaming, and text analysis,” the report notes.

Notably, Facebook now allows people to make anonymous reports of suicidal posts by friends and has, since last December, offered live, private chat sessions from trained suicide counselors. “Social networks give us a unique opportunity to save lives,” Facebook’s vice president for global public policy, Marne Levine, said Monday.

“We’re working to create tools on Facebook which connect to other mechanisms of help that go beyond the Web,” Levine added, specifically mentioning a network for veterans and military families that includes outreach via text messaging.

Also Monday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced $55.6 million in grants for state and local suicide prevention programs, but details were not immediately available.