Projects designed to scour a veteran’s digital footprint for clues on what contributed to their taking their own lives and to provide Native American veterans with mental health counseling tailored to their cultures won the top prize in the Department of Veterans Affairs' "grand challenge" aimed at finding new approaches to suicide prevention.
Stop Soldier Suicide's Black Box Project and Televeda's Project Hózhó will each get $3 million to continue their development, courtesy of the VA's Mission Daybreak program. Three other projects won the second-place prize of $1 million, and five third-place winners will each get $500,000.
"What really struck us in the top two prize winners was their dedication to learning and their curiosity to partnering with veterans and communities to build out a promising solution," Amanda Lienau, director of data analytics and innovation at the Veterans Health Administration Innovation Ecosystem, told reporters in a briefing announcing the winners Tuesday. "Their willingness to engage deeply and to take the perspective of veterans and people who are deeply steeped in this work as they developed their solution was really powerful and impactful."
The VA launched Mission Daybreak last year with the goal of seeking fresh ideas to combat the epidemic of suicide, which has declined in recent years but still kills an average of nearly 17 veterans a day.
With a total of $20 million up for grabs, more than 1,300 proposals were entered into the contest. In September, that was whittled down to 30 finalists, who then presented their projects to judges, VA officials, the media and others at a "Demo Day" in November.
Stop Soldier Suicide's Black Box Project has been scouring the cell phones, laptops, tablets and other electronic devices of veterans who died by suicide to try to find behavioral patterns that could then be used by artificial intelligence to identify other veterans at risk of suicide. Already, the project has found "dramatic changes" in sleep patterns and "a strong uptick in anger" in communications prior to the veterans' deaths, said Chris Ford, the organization's CEO.
So far, the project has about 100 devices donated by veterans' family members, and Ford expects the prize money will help get more devices to analyze and otherwise "accelerate" the program. Ultimately, Ford said, the goal is for the organization's data and software to be incorporated into existing mental health apps to monitor for red flags and direct veterans to lifesaving care.
"For a very long time, we have relied on psychological autopsies through a psych autopsy investigator talking with loved ones, co-workers, friends, family about the decedent to gather information about what might have happened, what was going on with them," Ford said in a phone interview with Military.com. "But that's third-party information that's biased by both the interviewer and the interviewees. The digital data is much less biased, if not unbiased, in that it is everything that person was doing."
Televeda's Project Hózhó is creating a web-based application where Native Americans can participate in a support group that resembles a traditional storytelling circle. The program will first roll out in Navajo Nation, with plans for later testing in the Apache, Hopi and Lakota tribes, said Mayank Mishra, co-founder and chief technology officer of Televeda.
"With the Navajo Nation, mental health is a community issue," Mishra said in a phone interview with Military.com. "They get together by the fireplace and talk to each other about life and their stories and how they can uplift each other as a community. And so we're really doing what the people have been asking for quite some time."
The prize money will help Televeda with the first phase of the project, which includes updating Navajo Nation's digital infrastructure and recruiting Navajo veterans to lead the storytelling sessions and train them in suicide intervention strategies, Mishra said. The storytelling circles themselves should be up and running in about six months, he added.
While the Mission Daybreak winners are not obligated to continue working with the VA, both Ford and Mishra said they hope to continue their relationships with the department. Ford raised the idea of integrating the Black Box Project's software into the VA's existing mental health apps, while Mishra expressed hope that seeing a traditional healer could one day be eligible for VA reimbursement if Project Hózhó proves effective.
VA officials, meanwhile, praised the full range of entries for finding innovative approaches to the problem of suicide and said that while there are no immediate plans for another competition, they would be open to another one in the future.
"This has been a diverse, eclectic, talented group internally and externally coming together, believing that suicide is preventable, exploring and evaluating the data, and approaching the problem from a public health perspective and lens," Matthew Miller, executive director for VA suicide prevention, told reporters. "This is groundbreaking for the VA in terms of innovation."
A full list of the second- and third-place winners can be found here.
Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can call the Veteran Crisis Line, 988 and press 1. Help also is available by text, 838255, and via chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.