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Nonprofit launches app to bring suicide prevention to users' fingertips

Grassroots, Howard County's only crisis intervention center, has launched a new suicide prevention app, joining a nationwide trend to integrate technological advances with crisis intervention, a form of counseling that relies on traditional communication like face-to-face or over-the-phone conversations.

Suicide rates in the United States have hit historic highs over the last 30 years. Between 1999 and 2014, the country's suicide rate surged by 24 percent, according to a National Center for Health Statistics study released this year.

Titled There is Hope, the tool is the first suicide prevention app that relies on self-assessment, said Brandon Johnson, director of suicide and violence prevention at the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The state funded the project through a $5,000 grant.

"Chatting, texting and apps are part of a big shift in the crisis intervention field. We think this is the way that crisis intervention is headed," Johnson said.

Seth Knobel, director of crisis services at Grassroots, hopes the app encourages people to have deep conversations with themselves about the issue of suicide.

"People often blow off the idea of suicide being a real problem. Additional help is needed in order to solve not only their own but somebody else's problems," Knobel said. "You can't pray these problems away."

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in Maryland. Although the state's suicide rate is below the nationwide average, suicides have increased by nearly 10 percent between 2013 and 2014.

The app guides users through a path of questions based on whether the user is an individual, community member, parent, teacher and friend or family member.

Users can connect automatically with Grassroots' 24/7 crisis hotline. The state hopes to add its 24/7 crisis hotline to allow users to connect to one of several crisis intervention centers in the state.

NextLOGiK, a Columbia-based software developer, created the app.

"You may not know when you need it and when you do, you want to have it. Everyone is a resource in suicide prevention," said Helen Little, marketing manager for NextLOGiK.

Since the app launched in early September, the hotline has received several calls from concerned parents and community members.

More local jurisdictions are joining the trend.

In 2014, the state launched interactive training that uses an avatar and virtual reality to train users on how to interact with individuals considering suicide. The tool has trained more than 10,000 people in Maryland.

Montgomery County's crisis intervention center, for example, provides crisis intervention through texting, a method commonly referred to as crisis texting.

Crisis texting is a new tool often designed to target young adults and kids who are familiar with social media and texting.

However, almost half of the texts Montgomery County receives are from older adults, Johnson said.

"People like the idea of being able to casually text about something they're going through instead of really having to talk through everything," he said.

Knobel said many people contemplating suicide have trouble directing their thoughts orally. Apps and other tools foster "a more anonymous approach" that is attractive for people struggling with suicidal thoughts, he said.

Still, despite their attractiveness, technology has been used judiciously in crisis intervention due to liability concerns and the need to provide appropriate sources for people who are dealing with sensitive issues.

"If you're in crisis, you're not going to want to [be asked] 10 questions about how you're feeling," Johnson said. "Every tool has a purpose and our goal is to get as many people to discuss suicide prevention as possible."

For Knobel, self-assessment, a key feature of There is Hope, led to a 30-year career in crisis intervention and social work.

As a high school student, Knobel said he watched his friend, a gang member in Illinois, die in his arms. The friends were skipping school when a drive-by shooting claimed his friend's life.

The shooting became a defining moment for Knobel, then a student at Evanston Township High school in Evanston, Ill.

His friend jumped in front of Knobel, saving his life and pushing him to make sense of what happened that fateful day.

"I spent a long time really trying to figure out why people had to live like that," Knobel said.

He hopes the app will allow a more expanded community conversation about suicide.

"People who are significantly suicidal and have difficulty seeing why their life has meaning or value have really lost all sense of hope. The truth is, there is hope," he said.

The app There is Hope is available to download in the Apple and Google Play stores.

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