Five-year suicide prevention strategy highlights value of digital resources, digital therapeutics and opportunities for ML and AI

The UK government has launched its new five-year suicide prevention strategy, highlighting the value of digital resources, digital therapeutics and opportunities for machine learning and artificial intelligence in prevention.

The new strategy notes that “while overall the current suicide rate is not significantly higher than in 2012, the rate is not falling”, and that this means “there is therefore much more we must all do to save more lives”. Aims set out under the strategy include reducing the suicide rate over the next five years, with initial reductions observed within half this time or sooner; improving support for people who have self-harmed; and improving support for those bereaved by suicide.

Some of the key ways that the strategy identifies for achieving these aims include improving data and evidence used to inform timely interventions; and promoting online safety and responsible media content to reduce harms and improve support and signposting.

High-quality data is listed as a principle that should be incorporated into the design and delivery of interventions, and the strategy notes that this includes “harnessing digital technology and data advancements to provide earlier interventions and wider access to support”.

On improving data, the strategy highlights the need to collect and record data and intelligence on suicide and self-harm more quickly, with local “real-time intelligence” helping to “inform our understanding of trends nationally”.

With these improvements in mind, the strategy points to the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, within the Department of Health and Social Care, and the work being done on developing a new nationwide near real-time suspected suicide surveillance system, scheduled to launch in November 2023.

On “building a more connected society” the strategy commits to taking actions including exploring the benefits of technology “more comprehensively” and applying them “where they can support the implementation of effective suicide prevention activity”. This includes “testing of digital therapeutics, and further developing our knowledge of the potential benefits and risks of artificial intelligence in relation to suicide prevention”.

Tackling online harms forms another section of the strategy, focusing on the new Online Safety Bill, which, if approved, will place new burdens on providers “in relation to content that falls below the criminal threshold”. Larger services will be expected to “offer adults optional tools to limit their exposure to legal content that encourages, promotes or provides instructions for suicide or self-harm”. The DHSC will work with Samaritans to deliver the Online Excellence programme with social media and search engine platforms, learning from research and providing input where appropriate.

The strategy also sets out plans to harness the benefits of online platforms and technology, “in supporting individuals to access information, speak openly about their thoughts or experiences, and identify options for peer and general support”. It encourages the voluntary sector and online platforms to continue to ensure that appropriate online signposting and resources reach the right people, and notes that the DHSC and NHSE will continue to explore opportunities to use digital and technology to support mental health and suicide prevention.

Specifically, the strategy highlights AI and ML as offering “valuable opportunities to enhance mental health and suicide prevention services”, noting the success of  “Shout” in demonstrating “where this could be particularly helpful for services using text elements, by using an AI roleplay simulator to support volunteer training”. It reinforces commitments to “test digital therapeutics that can reduce suicidal ideation and behaviours in the short and long term”, and to “engage with the technology and AI sector to identify opportunities to apply digital innovation safely and effectively to suicide prevention activity, in line with national clinical guidelines”.

In July, we reported on research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at Kings College London and commissioned by Wellcome, which highlighted “pockets of value” in longitudinal datasets to support mental health research.

Last month, we looked at South West London’s new mental health strategy, which looks to utilise digital tools and services to meet the needs of local communities and “better co-ordinate digital initiatives across the ICS to ensure a joined-up approach”.

To read the new five-year suicide prevention strategy in full, please click here.