Black Dog Institute, LifeSpan literally saving lives through data analytics

By David M. Williams, IT Wire

The non-profit mental health research facility, Black Dog Institute, is applying data analytics to identify strategies that will reduce suicide within the community under its LifeSpan program of work.

LifeSpan is a large program looking at nine different strategies, screening people in general practice, and a range of different interventions across community and health care settings. In order to help evaluate how effective a strategy may be, the program has five sites in NSW looking to implement the set of strategies in an incremental way to see if what they are doing in these regions is making a difference in suicide rates and hospitalisation.

To achieve its goals, the LifeSpan program needed a good, usable set of data on suicide and hospitalisation. This was obtained through a large range of data custodians, via numerous ethics committees, and the Black Dog Institute researchers gained assistance from global analytics provider, SAS, to help organise the data and work with it, as part of SAS’ Data 4 Good offering.

The SAS involvement began in December 2016 and included a six-month engagement with a resident. SAS came to the Black Dog Institute site and set up platforms for data ingestion, cleaning and processes. The relationship with SAS continues in a consulting capacity.

The main study will complete in 2021, explains Professor Helen Christensen, Director and Chief Scientist.

The effect of suicide on the community cannot be underestimated. In 2015 the Black Dog Institute stated there were 2,800 suicides in Australia. In 2017 this figure had increased to 3,028 and intentional self-harm is now ranked the 13th leading cause of death, up from 15th place previously.

Matthew Phillips, LifeSpan Data Manager, explains the Black Dog Institute is analysing the data to identify trends and high-risk groups, to inform local strategies, and to work with its site’s coordinators.

These trends are not simple; “You can have a high socioeconomic area with high suicide rates and low socioeconomic areas with low suicide rates - it’s not an even distribution. You could have four to five times more in one local health area than another. It’s not linked to anything in particular; that linkage may differ depending on the region,” Phillips stated.

While identifying specific causes remains elusive, the data shows a new disturbing trend has emerged. Suicide rates for men continue to exceed those of women, but an increase in suicide is being seen in young girls aged 12 to 16 years which did not exist previously and is alarming many organisations.

Positively, LifeSpan’s research is enabling multiple strategies to address the problems, including Youth Aware mental health, which can be integrated into any school event. 6,700 students have run through this to date, with SAS’ capabilities used to capture data like the number of students, dropout rates, engagement and involvement and more, including student’s views prior to the program and afterwards, to see how these have changed.

Another program is titled QPR, for Question, Persuade, Refer. This is an online course that outlines three simple steps which could save the life of a suicidal person. It can be learned by anyone in one hour, and so far 5,000 people have run through it, reporting a 96% increase in supporting a suicidal person. This course can be taken by you.

Another program is a community survey to change the stigma around suicide ideation and health-seeking behaviours, assessing how responses change over the period of LifeSpan’s work, with 8,500 responses.

LifeSpan further provides courses for GPs and psychiatrists, with over 400 attendees over the trial sites in Newcastle, the Illawarra, Shoalhaven, the Central Coast and Murrumbidgee.

“Everything we do has to be approved by ethics and different approval for each site. We're trying to put in place an evidence-based approach that's really going to help save lives,” Christensen says.

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Suicide is a complex social issue which needs a whole-of-community approach. Learn more about PHN’s approach. This community-led approach is integral to building the capacity of people to greater support those facing a suicide crisis and helping people in the local community to be informed and better connected. This is an opportunity to have a significant and sustainable impact on suicide in the region. Anyone in the community can get involved and there are many ways to contribute such as undertaking online suicide prevention training and learning about what services and supports are available in the community.

Watch the video of people with a lived experience who share their stories.