Suicide Prevention. Yes, There Is an App for That

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Phone apps can help with items frivolous to serious. Apps that address mental health issues may prove helpful tools in preventing death by suicide.

Naturally, a phone app is only as helpful as the user makes it. Like any other tool, if it is not used, it is not helpful, so people reluctant to use their smartphones will not benefit from these apps as much as someone who consistently turns to a smartphone for help.

“If someone is comfortable with that type of technology, it can be an adjunct to therapy,” said Celia Spacone, Ph.D., with Suicide Prevention Coalition of Erie County. “There are safety plans that can be done on an app. You can carry it with you all the time. It can be a way of taking control and staying safe.”

One app example is Virtual Hope Box, a virtual safety plan. It stores the contact information of people can call, music and photos that help them feel grounded, and other aspects of their safety plan. Most people always have their cellphones with them, making it the ideal means of keeping their safety plan on hand; however, “some want a sheet of paper,” Spacone said.

It is important to seek mental healthcare from professionals. Phone apps cannot replace this care; however, apps can help support and reinforce the work done in therapy. Apps can also provide a means to supplement the care the patient receives between sessions. That daily or as-needed maintenance may enhance the therapist’s work.

“The gold standard for safety planning is the SAMHSA Suicide Safe app,” Spacone said.

But apps that encourage healthful coping methods — like eating right, exercising and practicing mindfulness, gratitude and meditating — may also prove helpful. Spacone said that self-care can contribute to good mental health.

Mark O’Brien, licensed clinical social worker and commissioner of the Erie County Department of Mental Health, said that the safety planning apps may be helpful in that users can record what helps them feel better, “like social supports, listening to music, doing artwork and exercise,” he said. “What are resources to turn to like mental health providers and support groups?”

Apps can also help users become more self-aware as to how they are feeling and how to verbalize their pain so others can better understand.

He also thinks that apps that encourage exercise can be helpful.

“Exercise is hard to do when you’re depressed but it releases endorphins and serotonin,” O’Brien said.

He also thinks that apps can help people stay on a schedule and break up their goals into manageable chunks.

“Setting smaller goals and priorities can have an impact with your life,” O’Brien said.

Since reaching for smart phone apps is a strategy many employ now, it makes sense to use apps as another tool for promoting good mental health.

“People’s phones are so easily accessible right now,” said Erin Ruston, license mental health counselor at Buffalo Medical Group in Williamsville. “There’s Head Space and the Calm app and breathing apps and meditation. There are some that if you are feeling suicidal, you fill out your mood for the day and the results go to your care provider.