Phone apps are helping scientists track suicidal thoughts in real time

depressed woman
PRECIOUS TIME Investigations that equip volunteers with smartphones indicate that suicidal thoughts fluctuate in signature ways over just a few hours. Closer scrutiny of these thinking patterns may lead to advances in suicide prevention.

Suicide research is undergoing a timing shift, and not a moment too soon. A new breed of studies that track daily — and even hourly — changes in suicidal thinking is providing intriguing, although still preliminary, insights into how to identify those on the verge of trying to kill themselves.

Monitoring ways in which suicidal thoughts wax and wane over brief time periods, it turns out, can potentially strengthen suicide prevention strategies.

Digital technology has made these investigations possible. Smartphone applications alert people to report on suicidal thoughts as they arise in real-world settings. Scientists have traditionally been limited to tracking suicidal thinking over intervals of weeks, months and years, often in research labs and hospitals.

But risk factors that do a decent job of predicting the emergence of suicidal thoughts and acts over the long haul, such as persistent feelings of hopelessness, provide little help in tagging those who will become suicidal in the coming hours and days. Depression, often cited as a main driver of suicide, displays a strong link to suicidal thoughts but not to attempting or completing suicide in the near future.

Despite increasing efforts to combat suicide, U.S. suicide rates steadily rose from 1999 to 2016 (SN Online: 6/7/18). After declining during the 1990s, U.S. suicide rates now roughly equal those of 100 years ago. In recent weeks, the surprising high-profile suicides of designer Kate Spade and chef and television star Anthony Bourdain have attracted more attention to this problem.

“The field of suicide research needs to move away from its obsession with long-term risk studies,” says psychologist David Klonsky of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. A better understanding of how particular suicidal thoughts play out in daily life will lead to the identification of the most telling warning signs of impending suicide attempts, Klonsky predicts. Current theories focus on a range of potential factors that transform suicidal thoughts into life-ending actions, including feeling like a burden to others and suffering from unrelenting pain and hopelessness (SN: 1/9/16, p. 22).

Researchers can’t yet pinpoint suicide alarms for specific groups of people. That makes it even more vital for people contemplating suicide to contact suicide hotlines, psychotherapists and friends for help, Klonsky says. (To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).)

The rise of real-time, digital monitoring holds promise for giving clinicians a heads-up as to who is in the most immediate danger of acting on suicidal thoughts. A handful of studies published since 2009 have found that thoughts of suicide often appear rapidly in individuals with past suicide attempts, and can vary dramatically from hour to hour.

A team led by psychologist Evan Kleiman of Harvard University has taken digital monitoring a step further. The researchers recruited 51 adults from online forums related to suicide…

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