Suicide prevention iPhone app launched by county

Hein suicide ap HZT

Photo by Dan Barton

“I’m at the lunch table with somebody. I’m 16.” Ulster County Executive Mike Hein is sitting in his office, holding an iPhone. “My friend’s behavior is different. Something’s not right. He’s talking about things that are troubling.” Hein taps the screen of the phone, and the county’s brand-new Suicide Prevention Education and Awareness Kit (SPEAK) springs to life with a menu of advice and information.

“I’m very proud of it,” says Hein, who unveiled the free app at Kingston High School on November 13. “There’s been an enormous team effort going into making it, and we’re the first county in the state to have it. We’re making it available to all the counties around the state of New York, and we have our technical system available so they can customize it for their communities.”

The executive taps the first choice on the app menu, “Warning Signs,” leading to a list of 13 worrisome behaviors, such as “expressing self-hatred,” “increasing use of alcohol or drugs,” “talking about suicide.” He checks off a couple of symptoms, taps again, and there’s a list of recommended actions, depending on the severity of the situation, with advice on how to talk to someone who’s thinking about suicide. Suggestions for action include “encourage positive lifestyle change,” and in extreme cases, “remove potential means of suicide.” “Seek guidance” is universal, with a button on every screen that will instantly call the Family of Woodstock suicide prevention hotline or the national suicide hotline 800 number.


Tamara Cooper, program coordinator at Family of Woodstock, was one of three local mental health professionals who collaborated to design the app as part of their effort to “create a suicide-safer community countywide,” said Cooper. She joined Vince Martucci of the Ulster County Department of Mental Health and Ellen Pendergast of the Mental Health Association to write a mini-grant from the New York State Office of Mental Health that funded the six months of work on the app. Technical assistance was provided by Mac Works, a local consulting firm.

While an online search reveals existing suicide prevention apps, Hein said most of them are directed at suicide-prone individuals already in mental health programs. While SPEAK could also be useful for a person having suicidal thoughts, Hein believes it is the first app designed for family and friends who want to help someone else.

“It gives the person, who may be feeling overwhelmed or burdened, options for what to do next,” said Cooper. “What we know about suicide prevention is that people most often turn to family members or friends, as opposed to going to a mental health practitioner.”

Hein pointed out, “For many young people, smartphones are a way of life.” The instant access to information, he hopes, will lead people to take appropriate action at critical moments when someone is in trouble.


High suicide rate

Also on the SPEAK menu are three one-minute videos in which a teen, a veteran, and another adult discuss the issues particular to those groups. A button on “what to say” leads to a detailed guide on how to talk to a person who’s considering suicide. Topics include “Ways to start a conversation about suicide,” along with specific questions to ask (“When did you begin feeling like this?”) and helpful sentiments to express (“I may not be able to understand exactly the way you feel, but I care about you and want to help.”)

“While we’re concerned about the homicide rate of 17,000 to 18,000 per year,” observed Cooper, “the suicide rate is 34,000 to 35,000 — and that’s only the documented ones. We know it’s actually higher. And we have generations of people now who are more comfortable with social media than a hotline or calling someone in person. Bringing people to online or social media resources is in process now. Learning how to incorporate them into our helping systems is really important.”

Cooper and Pendergast have been offering three-hour suicide prevention training and two-day intervention training for people without a mental health background who want to be “gatekeepers.” Cooper calls the training “CPR for psychological distress. We can all learn how to do that first aid.” Trainings take place at locations all over Ulster County, with the next one to be scheduled for early 2014.

“The app is cool and groovy,” Cooper said, adding that she finds working in suicide prevention a rewarding endeavor. “The field has a reputation of being scary, but there’s something human about it too. Who hasn’t, or won’t have, at least once in their life, thought about suicide as a way out of their problems?”

The SPEAK app is free and available now for iPhones from the online Apple store. An Android-compatible version will be out by the end of the year. To inquire about registering for suicide prevention or intervention training, call Family of Woodstock at 845-679-2485. The Family of Woodstock crisis hotline number is 845-338-2370, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifelife is at 1-800-273-TALK.