Can computers stop suicides?


A trial is underway in Victoria using computer science and hospital records to help doctors better identify those at risk of suicide.


A painful divorce and work-related stress saw Dr Geoff Toogood fall into severe depression last year.

The 54-year-old cardiologist from Melbourne said he was overwhelmed by everything that was going on in his life.

"I could not take the mental pain anymore and the suffering," he said.

"There was relationship breakdown, we were in the Family Court, I was having issues with my kids, I had serious work issues that sort of hit the front page of papers; not related to me but related around me. So I was under a lot of financial, economic and personal pressures."

Toogood told Insight he never acted on his thoughts about ending his life and had put in place preventative plans to stop him from making a snap decision. He joined Facebook to keep in contact with people and had helplines stuck on his fridge.

"Sometimes either someone needs to help you, or you have to go out and get the help. Because it's a preventable death," Toogood said. 

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that in 2012, three-quarters or 1901 of the deaths from intentional self-harm were men.

"Lots of men get lost in those critical transitions in life."

Professor Ian Hickie, is the former CEO of Beyond Blue and head of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney. He says initiatives targeting the youth are working but there is still a long way to go with the other age groups, particularly the middle-aged and elderly.

"So we're doing a better job now with younger people. But we still are really, really struggling, really between 25 and 40, with men who have got mental health problems or substance-abuse problems or other difficulties actually that being at a stage of life where people assume they're coping, that they're okay, but actually they are quite disconnected." 

"Lots of men get lost in those critical transitions in life. The transition out of family into school, from school to employment, employment to relationships, and those critical early periods of their life where they’re not so confident about who they are and staying connected."

"And I think that remains then the really big challenge. We’ve got greater awareness about mental health problems, greater access to services but how do we stay connected so that when you’re going through one of those tough times, you’re still alive at the end of it?"

Clinical psychiatrist Richard Harvey, from Deakin University in Victoria, told Insight it's always a challenge for doctors to assess whether someone is suicidal. He said doctors are influenced by their engagement with the patient and dependent on what the patient will disclose, which unfortunately means they don't always get it right.

He’s teamed up with computer scientist Professor Svetha Venkatesh, and together they've devised a way to look at the hospital data in more useful ways, studying inpatient admissions and emergency department visits and trying to find patterns.

"A clinician seeing someone in the [hospital] emergency department who's presenting in a suicidal state will ask a lot of questions. They want to collect lots of information. But it's filtering that and determining what's really important and particularly picking up when there has been a serious attempt at suicide in the past," Harvey said.

He told Insight this computer system is two-thirds better in predicting the likelihood of a serious event.

Ultimately, Harvey says their work is not about predicting suicide, but about assisting those who are immediately at risk so that the limited resources can be allocated more efficiently and in a more targeted way.

"It might take the clinician several hours to go through thousands of pages of medical records and summarise it all. So what the system does it very quickly picks out and presents visually a map of previous presentations and what's happened to this person."

While it’s still in a trial phase at hospitals in Melbourne, it’s an initiative welcomed by Geoff Toogood.

"I think any idea that can identify someone at high risk is good. Because sometimes it's a gut feeling, it's a doctor's gut feeling. Sometimes you can't identify it. Sometimes the risk is over a period of time. So if you can identify someone at risk, it's very helpful because the impact of suicide on the family and friends in the workplace that these people are in is just a lot."


This week, a policeman, a cardiologist and a footy star join a room of men to discuss why male suicide rates are so high – and how some of them made it back from the brink.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467

Source SBS

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