Smartphone app aims to stop suicides

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County leaders have introduced a suicide prevention smartphone app they hope will be used locally and throughout the nation.

“Statistics show that our county’s crisis center has over 30,000 contacts every year, which includes mobile crisis, walk-in and phone contacts,” Blair County Director of Social Services James Hudack said Tuesday. “This app is another way to help the members of our community who need it most.”

The app, which can be downloaded to any smartphone, poses a series of questions to help a user identify their own or someone else’s risk of suicide.

It also offers contact information, including a phone number for local users to reach the UPMC Altoona Community Crisis Center, 620 Howard Ave., or in the alternative, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“When Jim came to us about this app, we jumped on it quickly,” said Joe Merilli, owner of PS Solutions, the Altoona software company which designed the smartphone app making use of the Columbia Suicide-Severity Rating scale based on suicide-prevention questions.

Hudack said the scale and its questions have long been recognized as a valuable tool in trying to determine someone’s risk of suicide. But until now, Hudack said, the tool hasn’t been available as a cellphone app.

“This is a technology that can be in the hands of every citizen in Blair County,” said Jacque Harpster, who manages the UPMC Altoona Community Crisis Center and chairs the Blair County Suicide Prevention Task Force, which supported development.

“We hope to enable co-workers, managers, friends, caregivers, first responders and family members to start this important conversation with a loved one who may be struggling.”

At the courthouse Tuesday, Merilli demonstrated the smartphone app, which initially asks if the user wants to identify his or her location. Afterward, Merilli scrolled through the questions which he could answer or ask someone else to answer. Subsequently, phone numbers were immediately available to use.

County Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb said he recently used the Columbia Protocol questions while talking to a friend with anxiety and signs of depression.

“If this app can save one person’s life, this app would be worth everything,” Erb said. “Anyone who has ever had a friend of family member die by suicide knows how painful it is. You often ask yourself if you could have done more, and I believe this can help.”

Harpster said she believes the app will also be helpful in making more people talk about the potential for suicide. It’s a subject that needs to be discussed more, she said, because of the stigma locally associated with seeking help for mental health and substance abuse.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.