3 April 2019: How can new technology help us better understand suicidal thoughts and behaviors?

Evan M. Kleiman
Department of Psychology
Rutgers University

In other areas of science (biology, chemistry, etc.), we understand phenomena of interest by directly observing and studying them as they occur. Historically, however, we have not done this in the study of suicide because, until recently, the tools to do so have not been available. Indeed, this lack of information regarding the real-time occurrence of suicidal thoughts and behaviors may be a reason why despite all of the knowledge about suicidal thoughts and behaviors that has accumulated over the past 100 years, the suicide death rate in the United States is the same now as it was 100 years ago. The goal of my presentation will be to discuss how two new technologies—smartphone-based real-time monitoring (also called Ecological Momentary Assessment or Experience Sampling) and wearable physiological monitoring—offer to help us better understand suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

First, I will begin the presentation with an overview of findings from two smartphone-based real-time monitoring studies that describe how suicidal thoughts fluctuate throughout the day and how we can use these fluctuations to identify meaningful subtypes of individuals at risk for suicidal behaviors. Second, I will discuss findings from several other real-time monitoring studies on factors that predict suicidal thinking over just a few hours. Third, I will discuss new findings that use wearable physiological monitors to detect distress associated with suicidal thinking. Finally, I will conclude the presentation by discussing how integrating these new technologies offers great promise to go beyond improving our understanding of suicidal thoughts and behaviors to creating interventions to prevent suicidal thoughts and behaviors.