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Suicide prevention app aims to reach wider population

New York state Office of Mental Health

New York state has one of the lowest suicide rates in the nation. But, that still translated into more than 1,600 deaths in 2011, and upstate rural communities have been identified as the most at risk.

Now the state Office of Mental Health has released a free iPhone app designed to extend the reach of their suicide prevention initiative.

The Safety Plan app is designed to enable people to quickly access a customizable prevention plan that can help them manage suicidal ideas and periods of extreme depression.

Based on a method proven to lower suicide rates, the application allows someone to identify personal warning signs or stress factors that can lead to a crisis.

Users can also create a list of coping strategies to help lift their spirits, something they can look at to remind themselves of activities or places that help level their mood.

“Is listening to music a coping strategy for me, is writing in a journal a coping strategy, is going to the gym, is doing yoga, is going for a walk? Everybody customizes it to their own internal coping strategies,” says Melanie Puorto-Conte, director of the suicide prevention initiative for the New York OMH.

Puorto-Conte says individuals can also share the plan with others to help strengthen their support network. They can call people in their network directly through the program and be reminded of resources within their community.

She says the app is an easy, portable way to reach people who don’t have access to professional help, or are embarrassed to seek it out.

“We would like for it to be a starting point, it’s a starting point that’s just between you and the safety plan," Puorto-Conte said. "So we would certainly hope those who worry about the stigma would use this as a first step of getting through a crisis.”

Puorto-Conte says the Safety Plan tool is used traditionally by physicians or therapists, where patients write their lists of stressors, coping strategies, and support networks on a form.

With so many people using smart phones on a daily basis, she says it made sense to turn this tool into an app and reach out to a different demographic.

“A safety planning tool does save lives, because it gives people a structure on how they can help themselves, how they can connect to resources in their life, and how they can connect to helpful people,” Puorto-Conte says.

She says it’s the lack of connectedness in many rural upstate communities that often leads to a higher rate of suicide.

“Sometimes if you have to drive 25 miles to a mental health clinic, or a doctor, sometimes if you’re depressed people are disinclined to do that," Puorto-Conte said. "A large portion of it is feeling socially disconnected, and being isolated.”

She also says that’s why it’s important for all members of a community to be educated about the signs of depression, and the strategies for helping to prevent suicide.

“Suicide prevention is everybody’s business. You don’t have to be a doctor, a psychiatrist, a mental health professional, everyone can play a role,” Puorto-Conte said. "It really helps if everybody, at every level, gets some type of education about suicide prevention. We did a great job at educating the public about drug use and about smoking. I just wish, as a public health issue, suicide prevention could be elevated to that level.”

The app is currently available for iPhones only, but an android compatible version is expected to be released in the near future.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or you’re concerned about a friend or family member, you can call the national suicide prevention line on: 1800-273-TALK (8255).