Behind the Suicide-Stopping App That Could Save Your Child's Life
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because mental health conditions are only getting worse.
By Nick Fouriezos
Don Wright was working on a solution for his son’s depression that October night in 2017. He played ping-pong with 28-year-old Justin and all seemed well. They had discussed the future; it seemed bright. But in the morning light, a friend called to say Justin was missing. Wright had a terrible feeling. “I think he’s dead,” he told his girlfriend, moments before arriving at his son’s apartment.
Many parents of a child dealing with depression are familiar with Wright’s feeling of incoming tragedy. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. for people aged 10 to 34, and more than 47,000 Americans killed themselves in 2017, according to the American Association of Suicidology. Approximately one in five teenagers experience some form of severe mental disorder, yet despite the prevalence of mental health issues, it’s still treated as “something mystical,” Wright says. “We don’t say ‘we think he has a tumor, so we’re going to give a drug to treat it.’ We eventually know what’s wrong with somebody in other parts of medicine. We need to get there with mental health.”
We need to solve this because it’s potentially solvable, and it’s horrific.
Which is partly why Wright, 52, helped found Clarigent Health in 2018. The Mason, Ohio-based company is pioneering an app that uses artificial intelligence and natural language learning to help mental health providers detect suicidal tendencies earlier. “This could be the game changer,” says John Banchy, president of Children’s Home of Cincinnati, which has partnered with Clarigent to put the app in the hands of 20 therapists working with “at risk” kids in more than a dozen local schools (in the fall, the pilot program will expand to at least 20 more therapists across southwest Ohio). The app has been used in a therapy setting about 700 times, with almost 500 patients.
This isn’t Wright’s first foray into the mental health world. Previously he was chief operating officer of Assurex, a company creating genetic tests to tell doctors which medications will help their patients and which to avoid, a major challenge in the mental health community. After helping relaunch Assurex in 2008 and grow it to 500 employees before it was bought for $225 million by Myriad Genetics in 2016, Wright has also become a guiding hand for other startup founders in the emerging biotech hub of Cincinnati.
“He’s my asteroid guy,” says Mike Venerable, CEO of CincyTech, a state public-private partnership seed fund and early investor in both Assurex and Clarigent. “If I knew an asteroid was coming, and I was in charge of figuring out how to get a team together to organize a plan to knock the asteroid off course, I would call Don first.”
How does the Clarigent technology work? A therapist records conversations with a patient using the app — with permission from parents and the child — and gets feedback into their state of mind. Its speech analysis technology was created by researcher John Pestian of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, using language patterns compiled from a database of more than 1,000 suicide letters as well as voice recordings taken from hospitals and emergency rooms in the Cincinnati area and West Virginia. The early trials show it is at least as effective as specialists at distinguishing between fake and fabricated suicide notes — and in many cases, is actually better. One day, Wright hopes the technology will be able to pinpoint the best treatments too, the way doctors can recommend medicine or lifestyle changes to help address a heart attack.
It was hardly a given that Wright would make his mark in the Midwest. After graduating from Cincinnati’s Xavier University with a computer science major and a business minor, he easily could have headed to Silicon Valley. Beginning his career at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, the soccer lover worked a dozen years in product development for Seattle-based software company Attachmate and another three for Boston-based ProfitLogic — but always keeping his home base in Cincinnati. Eventually, he found the most success and meaning by tapping into his hometown’s budding entrepreneurial community. Of Assurex, he says, “The most important thing that product ever did was get people off medications that would make them worse.”
Wright is reluctant to make Clarigent’s story personal, instead referencing facts and stats, figures and tests. There are more problems to be worked out. Questions remain about whether regional accents — say, the Southern drawl or New England’s dropped R’s — will influence the app, or even how close the recorder should be to get an accurate reading. Should the app take video to interpret body language, or will patients be less open on camera?
In some ways, they are easier questions than the one his therapist asks him: Is it healthy for him to be leading this charge while still mourning his son’s death? “It’s turned part of what I do into a mission,” Wright admits, but quickly points out that he was already laying the groundwork for Clarigent before tragedy struck his own life.
Other companies are developing early detection technologies, but none are so far along as Clarigent, which has published three studies verifying its efficacy. Wright worries that mentioning his son’s tragedy could distract from the promise his technology holds for the future. He claims another motivation. “We need to solve this because it’s potentially solvable, and it’s horrific,” Wright says, retreating again to the numbers — boys kill themselves three and a half times as often as girls, yet girls attempt suicide twice as much. “What would happen if girls started using guns and jumped off bridges, like boys? Things could be even worse than they already are.” But as Wright strives to save the lives of countless sons and daughters, it’s impossible not to believe that the one he couldn’t save is along for every step.
Read more: Can artificial intelligence save us from depression?