06.03.2021

Mental health care pioneer is on a mission to ‘hack’ suicide after losing his son

Despite working in the mental health care industry since 2008, Don Wright found himself at a loss for what could have been done to prevent his son’s suicide in October.

Wright, of Cincinnati, Ohio, co-founded Assurex Health, which pioneered a genetic test to match psychiatric patients to the best drugs for their genetic profiles.

His son, Justin, was 28 and interning at Wright’s business when he killed himself in October.

Justin’s death called everything he thought he knew about the mental illnesses that can lead to suicide into question.

Wright and everyone that knew and worked with his son was shocked by Justin’s death, but Wright decided to make the tragedy his impetus for change and founded the Suicide Project, which held a hackathon to brainstorm the best ways to make use of technological tools to address suicide in the modern age last month.

Don Wright (left) found success solving problems in mental health care, but since he lost his son, Justin (right), to suicide, he has made a new mission of tackling the deadly issue 

Don Wright (left) found success solving problems in mental health care, but since he lost his son, Justin (right), to suicide, he has made a new mission of tackling the deadly issue

Wright’s son was one of 45,000 Americans that die by suicide every year.

Suicide as a public health issue has been pulled out from the shadows and is increasingly a part of daily conversations on and offline, yet it remains the 10th leading cause of death in the US.

Wright’s former company had helped many patients to find the right treatment for their symptoms, yet neither Wright, nor his son’s psychiatrist or colleagues seemed to have been able to pinpoint Justin’s distress.

Wright and his team at Assurex had been the ones to crack one of the most insidious problems in mental health care: the psychiatric medication cycle.

Mental health disorders are complex, often intertwined, completely individualized and their neurochemistries are not very well understood.

So finding the right treatment for any particular patient is often a long, arduous trial-and-error road, littered with pitfalls, setbacks, side effects and an ever-increasing tolerance.

But, under Wright’s leadership, Assurex pioneered the GeneSight Test, which tests various medications on your genes, instead of on you.

The test is approved for screening which medications might best treat anxiety, bipolar disease, depression, schizophrenia, ADHD, and pain.

From the outside, it seemed that all of the best systems to care for Justin’s mental health were in place.

Justin had the support of his family. He was working with his father’s company where one of the staff had taken him on as a sort of mentee. He had a psychiatrist whom his father believed he was happy.

Justin and his father were close and Wright thought his son had all  the support he needed

Justin and his father were close and Wright thought his son had all  the support he needed

Before his suicide on October 13, Justin had at Assurex, the company his father co-founded, and which marketed the first genetic test to help match patients to a psychiatric medication  

Before his suicide on October 13, Justin had at Assurex, the company his father co-founded, and which marketed the first genetic test to help match patients to a psychiatric medication

But then Justin was gone, and Wright was wondering what he – and everyone else in Justin’s life, it seemed – had missed.

Wright, whose work had already so closely overlapped with suicide prevention, wanted to harness his grief and find a way to bring something positive out of his loss.

‘I was already working on this before Justin killed himself,’ Wright told Cincinnati.com, ‘but my psychiatrist said, “as long as you’re doing the thing you’re passionate about, it’s OK.”‘

He started his passion project with an information gathering mission, immersing himself in all the latest research on suicide he could read.

But statistics and quantifications simply fall short of a very human and personal issue. For scientific research to provide conclusions, its approach must be narrow and focused, but the struggles leading up to and following a suicide are anything but.

Justin saw a psychiatrist with whom Wright believed his son was happy and making progress before his death last year 

Since leaving Assurex in 2017, the ever-enterprising Wright has been investing in and cultivating tech and start-up businesses. So he decided to once again apply his connections and skills to a problem he so cared deeply about solving.

In the tech start-up world, when a problem seems unsolvable, a hackathon is in order to bring together the best minds to collaborate and compete for a reward for brainstorming and building a solution.

So, beginning in January, Wright undertook The Suicide Project, a ‘first of its kind multidisciplinary summit in Cincinnati to rethink suicide,’ as its site defines the initiative.

On March 10, he hosted the meet-up, where more than 130 child psychiatrists, scientists, technologists, people who had lost loved ones to suicide, and former Assurex colleagues came together to discuss the challenges facing suicide prevention and pitch ideas to address them.

Experts shared some of the research that had led Wright to organize the conference, and 11 categories of problems were presented.

These ranged from the taboo that still lingers around suicide, to the inaccessibility of resources, fragmentation in both research and funding and dearth of action-based solutions.

The attendees broke into groups and brainstormed possible solutions ‘to rethink suicide from the ground up,’ as Wright told Cincinnatti.com.

After 10-hours, each team pitched their ideas, and Wright distributed $10,000 in prize money to the four ideas with the most potential.

The money was allotted to four very different projects.

The father and son duo spent time outside of the office together as well, attending all kinds of sporting events, including a Cincinnati soccer game in 2016

The first prize, a $5,000 grant went to Sarah DeDiemar, who had worked closely with Justin.

A brand manager at Assurex, she is in the early stages of designing a marketing campaign which uses simple, direct, but on-confrontational phrases to help people talk to their loved ones about depression or thoughts of suicide.

Money was also awarded to a doctor who has broken suicidality down from a ‘yes or no’ question into a scale of 10 possible degrees of suicidality to try to approach the difficult subject less bluntly.

The other two projects seek to aggregate global data on suicide and interventions, and to create an app with daily mental health check-ins, respectively.

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