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Michelle Young

Michelle - Orkut shot Michelle YoungOct 8, 2012
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U.S. Military Tackles High Rate of Suicides With an App

U.S. Military Tackles High Rate of Suicides With an App
October 5, 2012
by Joann Pan

More U.S. military service members have died from suicide than enemy fire, roadside bombs and injuries sustained during combat this year.

As 2.4 million Americans who fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan prepare to return from combat, U.S. military entities are struggling to tackle the rising number of suicides, according to an NPR report. After experiencing war-related trauma, active-duty service members and veterans often face debilitating mental-health issues — including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and suicide ideation.

Suicide remains a top cause of death among active-duty personnel and veterans. For years, the Department of Defense has tried to find a solution to the problem plaguing troops.

Dr. Nigel Bush, a clinical psychologist with the DOD’s The National Center for Telehealth and Technology, or T2, believes reforming a classic suicide-prevention tactic could be the solution.

One strategy medical health practitioners use to redirect a distressed individual’s attention towards wanting to live is creating a “hope box.” Doctors and patients work together to fill a shoe box with reminders of reasons to live. It becomes a repository of images and important items that reminds them of loved ones, accomplishments and future aspirations.

Patients with suicidal thoughts can feel hopeless, like there’s no way out. Dr. Bush tells Mashable that one of the distinguishing characteristics of suicidal patients is being able to recite more reasons to die than to live. Clinical therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy are both effective ways to counter this state of mind, according to Dr. Bush.

“It tries to teach patients to identify positive outcomes and to try to modify their thoughts and behaviors to increase the likelihood of thinking and perceiving positive events,” Dr. Bush says.

Dr. Bush believes creating a Virtual Hope Box app could make the “hope box” portable and accessible to service members who are deployed or veterans who live far away from V.A. hospitals and clinics where counseling services are available.

Getting help to those who need it in time is pertinent to saving lives, according to researchers. Since providers are “somewhat clustered in locations,” help isn’t always available in moments of crisis, T2′s public affairs officer Joe Jimenez tells Mashable.

“People either don’t want to go into the office or they physically can’t because they are hundreds of miles away,” Jimenez says. “If they are in treatment that requires them to go back at least once a week, that could be very difficult to do, which causes a high dropout.”

It would be ideal for active-duty service members to undergo counseling or diagnosis testing while still deployed on combat missions. T2 hopes mobile technology can reach soldiers around the world.

“We were looking at a broad community that’s worldwide and very active, deployed a lot of the time for combat missions as well as missions around the world,” Jimenez says. “We had to look at everything to try to develop products and services to help this very large diverse community.

T2 has about 27 health-related mobile apps in the works or already available on Apple and Android markets for U.S. military, National Guard and Reserve members.

Smartphone penetration within the U.S. Military community mirrors the rate civilians are using them (more than 60%).

T2 plans to provide all service men and women with smartphones to facilitate mobile “telehealth” programs enabling video-conferencing with therapists and counselors in the future. The apps and virtual reality therapy experiences will be prescribed and regulated by licensed psychologists working with troops.

Plans to “equip all service members with smartphones” will also give them access to apps and mobile health programs like the Virtual Hope Box.

Virtual Hope Box

The Virtual Hope Box app is designed to help active service members and veterans struggling with suicidal thoughts. The app mimics physical hope boxes used currently in suicide-prevention treatments.

“It’s tailor-made for a military population of patients — active duty and veterans,” Dr. Bush says.

Unlike a physical shoe box, the app is portable and unlimited in space. The Virtual Hope Box app includes important contact information and connections to suicide hotlines for emergencies. The app will also provide “distraction” games, coping cards designed by licensed psychologists, inspirational quotes and guides to relaxation exercises (breathing exercises). It’s built to discourage hopelessness and thoughts of suicide.

The app prototype is still going under review and extensive testing. The technology research center comprised of clinical psychologists, researchers, designers and specialists will work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) to test the app with military patients. It’s projected to be on the market at the end of next summer or October 2013, the latest.