Experts support government funding for suicide prevention apps

27 June 2016
Turning old models of mental health care on their head

Professor Ian Hickie has applauded Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's commitment to invest $30 million in a world-leading suicide prevention system as the centre-piece of the government's $192 million mental health policy, announced on the weekend.

Left to right: Professor Rafael Calvo, Professor Ian Hickie, Dr Laura Ospina Pinillos, Professor Jane Burns, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Health Minister Sussan Ley.

Mr Turnbull made the announcement while meeting mental health experts at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre.

Co-developed by the Brain and Mind Centre and Young and Well Co-Operative Research Centre, the system known as Project Synergy, provides fast access to mental health experts via apps and online tools for young people at-risk of suicide.

University of Sydney evaluations of Project Synergy trials in Broken Hill, the NSW Central Coast and western Sydney have shown the system effectively identifies young people at risk of suicide and helps them access urgent care from local services such as Headspace and Lifeline.

“This is the end of the dumb waiting list,” said Professor Hickie, Co-Director of The Brain and Mind Centre. “Those high-risk kids go to the front of the queue and get help from a senior clinician online straight away, and an appointment in a clinic tomorrow.

“Under current mental health arrangements, a depressed or suicidal young person might phone or visit an individual ‘shop-front’ service, such as Headspace and be given an appointment — often waiting days or weeks to do so — then assessed by a junior clinician, who may or may not be able to find higher levels of care with the necessary urgency.

“Project Synergy turns the old model of mental health care on its head,” said Professor Hickie. “Instead, the same young person would use a smartphone, tablet or computer to describe their symptoms and concerns in detail, including a full medical history, sleep patterns and moods.

“A combination of algorithms and senior clinical experts would then analyse each case and make immediate contact if a person seemed at high-risk of suicide or self-harm, securing them an appointment within hours with a local mental health provider.”

The Prime Minister said he was passionately committed to addressing the challenges of mental illness and suicide.

“I quote Ian Hickie a lot on this when he talks about the ‘mental wealth of nations'," he said. “There can be no more important investment.

“As a society we need to be alert to mental illness and remove the taboo on discussing it, which is why we are talking more often and openly about mental health issues.

“We have to learn to recognise depression in family, friends and work mates and reach out to them – before it is too late.

"This is why my Government is investing more in mental health and making services far more accessible, including through our smart phones,” he said.

University of Sydney software engineer, Professor Rafael Calvo, who is an adviser to the Young and Well CRC said: “New technologies can aid a higher sense of autonomy for mental health patients. They can also increase engagement and help us find ways to reduce risks associated with mental health issues.”

The Government will fund ten new Headspace centres and make the National Mental Health Commission a more powerful and independent body, reporting directly to the Health Minister and Prime Minister, as part of new policies announced by the government. A project enabling young people in crisis to text Lifeline will also receive a $2.5 million government grant.

Further details of the government’s mental health policy announcement are available here.

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