Originally appeared in Courier Post, written by Kim Mulford.
More than half of people who die by suicide don’t have a known mental health condition at the time of their death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 64 percent who attempt suicide visit a doctor in the month prior.
Those missed treatment opportunities are contributing to the rise in New Jersey’s suicide rate, up 19 percent between 1999 and 2016.
It’s a serious problem related to the state’s psychiatrist shortage and slow integration of mental health care into the primary care system, explained Carolyn Beauchamp, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey.
“If the primary care docs aren’t picking it up, it can just be carried on,” she said.
To catch and treat more patients at risk of suicide, South Jersey primary care and specialty doctors are trying out new tech tools like digital questionnaires, smartphone apps and wearable devices to assess their patients’ mental health and help them stick to their treatment plans.
Technology can connect a distant psychiatrist to a hospital emergency room treating a patient in crisis. But it also can help patients see the connection between their minds and bodies.
At the Inspira LIFE Vineland program, older patients are learning how to use a smartphone app and wearable devices to track their body’s response to breathing exercises and music therapy. The cloud-based system, called NeuroFlow, was developed in Philadelphia and introduced to the market earlier this year.
Dr. Ankur Patel, the program’s medical director, said he tries any technology if he thinks it will be useful to his patients, including pill dispensers that alert his office when a patient misses a dose, and genomic swabs to individualize medication for each patient.
“I believe we need to think outside the box,” Patel said. “Because in the past, medicine has been more experience-driven, but in the future, medicine will be more creativity-driven. So whoever is more creative will be ahead of the game.”
Since chronic pain sufferers often experience high levels of depression and anxiety, pain management specialists at Relievus in Mount Laurel use the NeuroFlow system to objectively measure psychological symptoms and refer patients to appropriate mental health providers.
Dr. Young Lee, an anesthesiologist and interventional pain specialist, said the app also teaches patients how to recognize a panic attack, for example, and walks them through meditation or breathing exercises.
“They’re basically self-treating with this simple device,” Lee said.
The system gives patients immediate access to resources and a concrete way to measure results, explained Chris Molaro, an Army platoon leader during the Iraq war who is NeuroFlow’s founder and CEO.
After serving in combat, some of Molaro’s friends and fellow soldiers returned home to face depression, anxiety and PTSD. Despite the availability of therapists and evidence-based treatment, he said, many continued to struggle; one died by suicide.
“These things are fixable. You have to comply and adhere to treatment protocols,” Molaro said. “The tragedy is, the majority of people don’t. The compliance numbers are abysmal.”
He hopes his company’s product will help lower the veteran suicide rate.
“I want to make the 20 vets a day go down to zero,” Molaro said.