The pursuit of app-iness

Good results from the world’s first suicide prevention app in Australia underscore the need for such initiatives in India

July 02, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST - Sydney

  Reaching out  “The use of technology has increased among youth and the app allows specialists to reach them anonymously.”

Reaching out “The use of technology has increased among youth and the app allows specialists to reach them anonymously.”

Three years after its launch, iBobbly, the world’s first suicide prevention app, has shown promising results in the first randomised controlled trial in any population. Developed by researchers at Black Dog Institute, a mental health organisation in Australia, and launched in the country in 2014, the app is specially targeted at young people from the indigenous communities, who are at four times the risk of suicide compared to the rest.

iBobbly doesn’t need the Internet to be accessed once downloaded. It allows a person to keep a ‘mood diary’ after self-assessment, and teaches the user to manage thoughts — especially suicidal thoughts — and feelings and create a personalised action plan with tools to monitor progress. The programme maintains patient confidentiality and is password-protected.

Three years on, the researchers say participants from the Kimberley region in Western Australia who used the app over a six-week period reported a 42% reduction in symptoms of depression, 30% reduction in suicidal ideation and 28% reduction in distress.

Lessons for India

Mental health experts believe there might be lessons for India in this, where according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) latest suicide data, nearly 1,00,000 people commit suicide every year. The country’s suicide mortality rate is 20.9 per 1,00,000 people, among the highest in the world, with majority of the vulnerable groups not able to get the help they need, says Soumitra Pathare, a psychiatrist with the Pune-based Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy (CMHLP).

“Technology is the way forward. The use of technology has increased among youth and the app allows us to reach them anonymously,” says Dr. Pathare, who is currently working on scaling up a similar project in India. Called ‘Atmiyata’, Sanskrit for compassion, this project involves using short films loaded on a basic Android app as a training tool to enable a bunch of villagers to identify mental health disorders.

The project was rolled out in the Peth block of Nashik district, Maharashtra, in December 2013, making mental health care accessible to many in this part for the first time. “We are now looking at scaling it up to 500 villages in Mehsana district [of Gujarat],” he adds.

Asked if app-based interventions like iBobbly could work in low-resource settings in different parts of the world, Joe Tighe, one of the app developers at Black Dog Institute, said the feedback from the pilots has proven that the app improves mental health literacy. “The need for mental health apps like iBobbly is driven by scalability options. Remote Australian communities are very poorly serviced by mental health providers, hence the need for app development. Feedback from users is very positive and added benefits include an increase in mental health literacy, understanding and stigma reduction through conversations about taboo subjects such as suicide,” said Mr. Tighe.

In India, suicide prevention helplines have proved to be handy with apps yet to gain wide traction.

(Suicide is preventable. Call Aasra at 022 2754 6669 or Sneha at 044 2464 0050 or 044 2464 0060 if you know someone suffering from depression or mental health issues and in need of help.)

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