Indonesian researcher Sandersan (Sandy) Onie is not only looking at how Google Adwords can be used to help those in need of mental health support, he is also on a mission, driven by family history, to raise awareness of the importance of mental health and scientific research in Indonesia.
Onie, who is now works at the Black Dog Institute at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia says his passion for mental health research and eventually open science did not come out of an inherent curiosity,
“Rather it was a necessity, it was a means to improve the life of my own family, and the lives of countless others,” he said, adding that three months after he was born, his father suffered from crippling anxiety attacks.
“As I grew up, I saw the crippling effects of panic attacks on a great man, which would eventually lead to the breakdown of my family unit,” Onie said, “I too developed depression in junior high school and at the time, I had never even heard of ‘depression’.
After recovering with support from a group of friends in his church community, Onie dedicated his life to improving the lives and mental health of others as they had helped him.
In one of his current projects, he’s using Google Ads to target individuals searching up suicide related terms on Google.
“Studies have shown repeatedly that an increase of suicide related search terms correspond to suicide rate, therefore, it is conceivable that people would search up suicide related terms on Google” he said, adding that using Google Grants for Non-Profit, he and his colleagues were able to create an intervention that is able to reach anyone in crisis, no matter where they are or when they are searching up the terms.
“My research attempts to come up with new and innovative ways to improve mental health and reduce suicide,” he said, “Critically, with a focus of digital interventions, I focus on initiatives that are low cost and can reach a wide range of people.”
Onie says that suicide prevention and mental health is one of the great global challenges, with depression being second in global burden of disease – and suicide being the leading cause of death for young people. He said these numbers are on the rise during the pandemic, up to 3 times higher in some populations.
Onie says that digital interventions to mental health and suicide prevention can be applied cross-culturally. While it may not look exactly the same e.g. the search terms in each language for Google searches may differ, but the principle of using Google Ads can be used to tackle challenges such as not having a sustainable suicide hotline.
“This is critical for countries like Indonesia with no existing suicide hotline that we have a widespread intervention for suicide,” he said, “The pandemic has slowed the pace of research due to logistical constraints, but further emphasizes the importance of the work since people are no longer able to meet face-to-face.”
In addition to these efforts, Onie is trying to help boost mental health research and science more broadly in Indonesia.
“While working in mental health in Indonesia, I found that there was very little research produced. For example, the most widely used therapy – cognitive behavioural therapy – did not have a single randomized controlled trial,” he said, adding that he felt that in order to improve mental health, along with a plethora of other societal issues, there is a strong need to build up science in the region.
He says that one of his key projects is fostering good scientific practices in developing research cultures – with a focus on South East Asia.
To that end, a team and I are currently developing national science policy, advocating for the use of national open science infrastructure, engaging with stakeholders worldwide to make science inclusive, and I am organizing South East Asia’s first interdisciplinary science workshop,” he said.
He also previously helped organise Indonesia’s largest ever science webinar to promote good scientific practice consisting of over 1000 researchers, journalists, and government scientists from over 30 institutions.
Another Indonesian scientist making a difference is Puji Rianti. Now a researcher at the IPB University in Indonesia, she was a co-author of the paper that in 2017 described a new species of great apes, the Tapanuli orangutan, Pongo tapanuliensis, .
Rianti now she was studying the genetics of the Tapanuli orangutan, which is only found in a small area in Northern Sumatra, where they were spotted in 1939 and rediscovered in 1997.