July 16, 2014 | Posted By Jane Jankowski, DPS, LMSW

I have been slow to fully embrace the full potential my smartphone. I have a few apps that I use regularly for entertainment or basic information, like weather updates and maps. It’s convenient. I can entertain myself with games or social networking while I wait in lines or for a child to finish theater rehearsals, basketball/ballet/swimming practices. If I look up, most others waiting in parked cars are doing the same thing, a faint blue glow radiating from somewhere below the steering wheel.  Before we had devices to entertain us, we would more than likely spend the minutes talking, person to person. I tend to think person to person is better, after all a pen and ink letter, sharing coffee at a small café table, or a supportive hug must mean more than emoticon symbols. But maybe these tiny pictures can convey the intended emotion and offer a substitute when the real thing must be delayed or is otherwise not possible. Where is the line at which an electronic emotion, or interpretation of feeling is no longer enough? When I first learned that there were suicide prevention apps, I was aghast. Have we lost so much human connectedness that even acute emotional despair is summarized in a miniature touch screen? How can an app provide the essential emergent interventions to a person in such despair that he or she is contemplating suicide? But if this is where our social focus is anyway, and the first place people search when looking for help, perhaps it is not such a bad idea.

Skeptical, I decided to check out some of these apps. There seem to be two kinds, one which allows the user to quickly connect to help when experiencing an emotional crisis My 3 App and a second which helps the user help a friend or loved one when concerns arise, like the one developed for military personnel Guard Your Buddy. These smartphone applications, in my view, do a pretty good job of duplicating safety planning that is often part of a clinical intervention, such as identifying the people a person can call if they are feeling suicidal, of connecting to suicide prevention hotlines with just a tap, and rehearsing coping strategies. The app developed for the Tennessee National Guard (Guard Your Buddy) gives information not only for the distressed member, but also for friends and family members who may observe crisis symptoms in others. The goal of these apps does not seem to be substituting clinical evaluation, rather connecting the individuals affected to resources and facilitating an evaluation if needed.

There are risks. The patient may see the app as a substitute for a clinical evaluation and critical signs and symptoms will be missed. Not everyone has a smartphone with these capabilities. Poor or financially strained patients may not have cell phone accounts or the ability to re-fill minutes making the use of an app impossible. Phones can be turned off, lost, broken, etc. Some individuals may not embrace the technology or find it user friendly. But for those who rely heavily on smartphone technology to stay connected, this may be a useful strategy when combined with skilled evaluation and intervention methods.

For more information, check out these other sources: http://news.emory.edu and http://www.reuters.com.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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