Researchers develop computer-based system to help identify people at risk of suicide

14 Feb 2013

A research group at NUI Maynooth’s Department of Psychology has developed a computer-based system with the aim of helping healthcare professionals identify people who are at risk of committing suicide.

According to the group, the computer test has a 75pc accuracy rate in identifying those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Prof Dermot Barnes-Holmes from the Department of Psychology at NUI Maynooth and Ian Hussey, a PhD student at the university, are behind the research.

They believe their tool has the potential to be used in hospital and A&E settings in order to help doctors and healthcare professionals assess whether a person is at risk of suicide and to come up with treatment plans.


The computer-based system is called the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure (IRAP). Via the system, participants must confirm or refute statements under time pressure.

Reaction times are tracked and passed through a computer algorithm, which is used to reveal unconscious attitudes or biases that are used to predict actual behaviour.

Over the past year, trials of the system have been carried out with 24 service users from St Patrick’s University Hospital in Dublin.

Discussing the new system, Barnes-Holmes said some of the most difficult behaviours to predict are those that occur very rarely but have devastating consequences, such as suicide.

Hussey said the system uses tiny reaction-time biases to reveal unconscious attitudes and intentions.

“It can pick up on things that the individual themselves might not be aware of. This makes it ideal to study self-harmful and suicidal behaviour. Our test is also less invasive than traditional methods that require people to talk openly about their struggle with suicidal thinking,” he explained.

Hussey said the aim is for this research to help doctors identify priority cases for psychological care when people present at hospitals and A&E departments.

The NUI Maynooth project is funded by the Irish Research Council and is a finalist in the ‘Making a Difference’ Awards that are run by the Higher Education Authority to acknowledge impactful post-graduate research work. is hosting Med Tech Focus, an initiative which over coming months will cover news, reports, interviews and videos, documenting Ireland’s leading role in one of the hottest sectors in technology.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic