AI's Role in the Push for Suicide Prevention

Janae Sharp
SEPTEMBER 10, 2018
artificial intelligence mental health,ai mental health care, ai stop suicide,hca news

In the second month of school, a Utah student talked about accidentally falling off a building. The child didn’t look anyone in the eye that day. Peers joked about killing themselves for weeks after that incident, and the student went on medical leave later that month.

In Herriman, Utah, seven students at one high school have already died by suicide during the 2018 and 2019 school year. In health-tech circles, however, a hopeful question has appeared: Can artificial intelligence (AI) combat the suicide crisis? It’s timely as ever today, Sept. 10, which is World Suicide Prevention Day.

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News about AI being able to recognize signs of depression has created a narrative of big brother watching over us and “curing” depression and suicide. But the reality of mental health support in the U.S. is one that lacks affordable care and a general lack of resources. AI can help, in some small way, overcome these issues and more.

HBI Solutions is a company that uses AI with data already available to providers to create clinical decision support tools, providing insights into suicide risk that is not otherwise obvious. Many studies indicate that people who intend to attempt suicide deny their intention or suicidal thoughts. But HBI’s predictive Spotlight Suicide Attempt Model has achieved results that show the importance of better risk visibility at the point of care and why data science still has much to learn about risk context and mental health.

The Forces Working Against Suicide Prevention

The gap in mental healthcare manifests in both access problems because of financial constraints and underserved populations with no providers in their area. In Utah, for instance, suicide rates have been increasing steadily at least since 1999, with many counties showing a lack of available resources across the board. Simply put, there is an insufficient number of providers to serve every patient who tries to get mental health support, and specific groups — such as those with language disparities — have an even wider gap in care accessibility.

The year 2013 marked the first in which suicide had become the leading cause of death for people between 10 and 19 years of age in Utah. Social factors such as education and social support negatively affect at-risk youth. Those without a positive family support had at 25 percent greater risk of dying by suicide. When presented with an underserved population, healthcare providers need better risk assessment tools and greater resources to combat climbing suicide rates.

The dearth of providers is so severe that even patients who present at the emergency room with suicidal thoughts might not have access to immediate care or ongoing outpatient therapy afterward. Trauma-informed medical care in an emergency setting is complicated by narrow provider bandwidth and a lack of financial resources. Some of the risk factors for suicide attempts are readily apparent with good information, but the lack of significant social determinants of health information inhibits provider decision making in an overburdened system. Many risk factors are not self-evident for healthcare providers or not reported by patients. This can include information such as family support for an at-risk LGBT youth with suicidal ideation. Many parents do not understand the seriousness of mental health issues for youths or don’t have the information to know how to get their children mental health help.

I spoke with Camille Cook, a school counselor, about some of the problems with mental health for kids in Utah. Some parents have told school counselors that they figure they can always take their children to the university health system or somewhere for emergency mental healthcare. She told me, however, that it’s not so simple. Here’s a paraphrased version of what Cook says:

If you think your children are in danger, a health system might be able to hold the child for a few days. But if you need long-term help, it seems like everywhere is full. If you need inpatient treatment or any type of residential treatment, the waiting list is long. I had a student that needed treatment last year, and the family was told to wait for six months. In six months, you might not have your kid anymore. If you are waiting for a psychiatrist, you will wait at least three months.

There are therapists — it can be really hard to find one that takes your insurance. So many clinics are going to self-pay, and when a family is already paying $600 a month for insurance, they can’t afford to pay for psychiatry and therapy out of pocket. One of the hardest issues is that if a child needs residential treatment, the insurance will only cover minimal expenses. You are still paying all living expenses.

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