Technology and Data in Mental Health: Applications for Suicide Prevention

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Guest post by Elizabeth Chen, PhD, Associate Director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics, Associate Professor of Medical Science, and Associate Professor of Health Services, Policy & Practice at Brown University.

Biomedical informatics as a discipline is broadly concerned with the effective use of data, information, and knowledge to improve human health. Since its origins in the 1950s, we have watched this discipline evolve with advances in health information and communications technology as well as the explosion of electronic health data. During this time, we have also seen the emergence of sub-disciplines reflecting areas of specialization. In fact, a 2015 study uncovered almost 300 different “types” of informatics! Among these was mental health informatics, which first appeared in the title of a 1995 article indexed in PubMed.

Using technology to understand and support mental health dates to the 1950s when specialized television broadcasts delivered mental health training. In the 1960s, computers analyzed data for psychological diagnoses and housed “artificial intelligence” systems that simulated communication with a psychotherapist. More recently, with the rapid adoption of electronic health record (EHR) systems that can collect longitudinal patient information such as diagnoses and medications, we are observing the increased use of EHR technology and data for improving health care, including mental health care.

Mental health remains a global crisis. In the United States alone, mental health conditions affect 1 in 5 adults and children. These conditions are among the factors that contribute to making suicide the 10th leading cause of death overall and 2nd leading cause among 10- to 34-year-olds nationally. With suicide rates having increased by nearly 30% since 1999,  the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention calls for a comprehensive and coordinated approach that includes data-driven strategic planning and evidence-based programs.

There are numerous and wide-ranging applications of mental health informatics and EHRs contributing to these efforts, including the following:

  • Two independent datasets, one including EHR and biobank data from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, have characterized the role of common genetic variants among those who have attempted suicide. These large-scale genetic analyses support a heritable component to suicide attempts and an incomplete genetic relationship with psychiatric and sleep disorders.
  • At the Parkland Health & Hospital System in Texas, a Universal Suicide Screening Program, initiated in 2012, led to implementing the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale in the EHR system for adults. The integration of this clinical decision support tool into the clinical workflow demonstrates how technology may be used to improve suicide risk recognition.
  • Researchers across the country are developing models for predicting patients’ future risk of suicidal behavior using “machine learning” techniques, state death certificates, and longitudinal EHR data from a range of health systems, including Partners Healthcare in Massachusetts [PubMed], HealthPartners in Minnesota, Henry Ford Health System in Michigan, and five different Kaiser Permanente locations [PubMed]. Implementing these predictive models as clinical decision support tools in EHR systems has the potential to improve screening, detection, and treatment of suicide risk.
  • In Connecticut, EHR data from the statewide health information exchange and five clinical partners are being used to identify patients at risk of suicide. Claims data from the All-Payer Claims Database and mortality data from the State Department of Public Health will be used to assess the outcomes and impact of the quality improvement efforts.

And these are just a few examples.

Technology and data will continue to play important roles in advancing mental health care. We have already seen the contributions of mental health informatics over the years and those of related areas such as behavioral health informatics and computational psychiatry. There is much more to come in the development of effective and innovative solutions for improving diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental health conditions, including those related to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

headshot of Dr. Elizabeth ChenElizabeth S. Chen, PhD is the founding Associate Director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics, Associate Professor of Medical Science, and Associate Professor of Health Services, Policy & Practice at Brown University. She leads the Clinical Informatics Innovation and Implementation (CI3) Laboratory that is focused on leveraging EHR technology and data to improve healthcare delivery and biomedical discovery. Dr. Chen is an elected fellow of the American College of Medical Informatics and is a member of NLM’s Biomedical Informatics, Library and Data Sciences Review Committee.


Dr. Chen will deliver the next NLM Biomedical Informatics & Data Science Lecture on Wednesday, November 14, 2018, at 2:00 pm in the Natcher Conference Center (Building 45), Balcony A. Her talk, “Knowledge Discovery in Clinical and Biomedical Data: Case Studies in Pediatrics and Mental Health,” is free and open to the public. It will also be broadcast live globally and archived via NIH Videocast.

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