Scientia Professor Helen Christensen has long been aware of suicide risk, having led pioneering work in harnessing the power of the Internet to deliver effective programs for depression and anxiety.
But it was an unexpected brush with the pain and tragedy of suicide close to her family five years ago that sharpened her research focus.
“I don’t want to overstate my own experience, but it gave me insight into how real suicidal thoughts feel, how powerful they are and how they can ambush you,” Christensen says.
She realised that very little suicide prevention research was being undertaken in Australia, despite more than 2500 suicides a year, and 65,000 more attempts. It’s an alarming toll: in Australia, more young people die by suicide than in car accidents or from skin cancer.
As head of the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention and as Chief Scientist at the Black Dog Institute, she is amplifying efforts to improve mental health with new research into effective online suicide prevention tools.
“Identifying people at risk can be like looking for a needle in a haystack, so we are using the reach of the internet and social media to cast our net very widely,” she says.
“We know people who are at risk of suicide are looking for help online. We can recruit people to our interventions by advertising on Facebook, or through social media, in a variety of ways previously not thought possible.”
Christensen and her colleagues have already demonstrated that online cognitive behaviour therapy and other tailored programs – which are easy to access and allow people to seek help privately from home – can be as effective as face-to-face clinical support in treating depression and anxiety.
“We are now hoping to show that the online interventions we are designing for suicide prevention will make a difference to people’s risk profile and so actually lower the suicide rate in Australia,” she says.
With $15 million in federal NHMRC funding, Christensen’s research teams are currently running more than 20 projects linking the internet and digital communications to mental health. They have developed five online psychological interventions for depression and anxiety, and have published more than 400 research papers.
One promising project is a mobile phone suicide prevention app called iBobbly, a name derived from an Indigenous term of greeting used in the Kimberly in Western Australia. This app delivers proven psychological therapies to reduce suicidal thoughts by drawing on Indigenous metaphors, images and stories.
Her team is also leading innovative social media research into how stigma around suicide moves through online and offline social networks and how Twitter can be used ethically to provide real-time population and individual data around mental health. By using data mining techniques to colour code words linked to emotions in Twitter feeds, for example, mood changes in the community can be mapped, and acted upon, without compromising privacy.