mobile phoneNew smartphone app technology may help to identify patients at high risk of suicide, researchers have revealed.

Data presented by researchers at Harvard University at the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ International Congress shows how a smartphone app and a computer test can help to identify suicidal patients.

By improving techniques used to determine a patient’s risk of taking their own life, professor Matthew Nock and his team from Harvard University hope to identify those patients most at risk. 

Current suicide risk assessment methods rely on patients reporting their own experiences, their clinical history, and a mental state examination by a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists understand that patients may not say what is on their minds, possibly because they are unwilling – perhaps due to fears of compulsory hospitalisation – or because they are unable to do so by unconsciously hiding something from themselves. This can lead to distortions in patient reported information.

But the smartphone app requests information on patient’s suicidal thoughts and behaviours throughout the day at specific and random intervals. The information is then sent to a central database and can be analysed for underlying trends.

The technique is called ‘ecological momentary assessment’ and aims to capture real time information about suicidal thoughts and behaviours rather than asking patients to recall such events that have occurred in the past. By gathering real time information, it is hoped that new insights about potential triggers for suicidal thoughts and behaviours can be discovered as well as better ways of predicting future suicide attempts.

Dr Mayowa Oyesanya, a pathfinder fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “These novel approaches to suicide risk assessment have the potential to improve upon current methods of identifying patients at high risk of attempting suicide. By gaining an insight into patient's implicit suicidal associations we can create tests that are difficult to falsify and straightforward to run.

“Using mobile smartphone technology we can also gain an insight into people's suicidal thoughts and behaviours as they occur in their lives rather than in the lab. Hopefully we can gain new insights about the ways in which suicidal thoughts and behaviours occur in people’s lives and why they do.

“The ultimate hope with these technologies is that we can prevent suicides and save lives.”