Can passive measurement of physiological distress help better predict suicidal thinking?

Evan M. Kleiman, Kate H. Bentley, Joseph S. Maimone, Hye In Sarah Lee, Erin N. Kilbury, Rebecca G. Fortgang, Kelly L. Zuromski, Jeff C. Huffman, Matthew K. Nock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


There has been growing interest in using wearable physiological monitors to passively detect the signals of distress (i.e., increases in autonomic arousal measured through increased electrodermal activity [EDA]) that may be imminently associated with suicidal thoughts. Before using these monitors in advanced applications such as creating suicide risk detection algorithms or just-in-time interventions, several preliminary questions must be answered. Specifically, we lack information about whether: (1) EDA concurrently and prospectively predicts suicidal thinking and (2) data on EDA adds to the ability to predict the presence and severity of suicidal thinking over and above self-reports of emotional distress. Participants were suicidal psychiatric inpatients (n = 25, 56% female, M age = 33.48 years) who completed six daily assessments of negative affect and suicidal thinking duration of their psychiatric inpatient stay and 28 days post-discharge, and wore on their wrist a physiological monitor (Empatica Embrace) that passively detects autonomic activity. We found that physiological data alone both concurrently and prospectively predicted periods of suicidal thinking, but models with physiological data alone had the poorest fit. Adding physiological data to self-report models improved fit when the outcome variable was severity of suicidal thinking, but worsened model fit when the outcome was presence of suicidal thinking. When predicting severity of suicidal thinking, physiological data improved model fit more for models with non-overlapping self-report data (i.e., low arousal negative affect) than for overlapping self-report data (i.e., high arousal negative affect). These findings suggest that physiological data, under certain contexts (e.g., when combined with self-report data), may be useful in better predicting—and ultimately, preventing—acute increases in suicide risk. However, some cautious optimism is warranted since physiological data do not always improve our ability to predict suicidal thinking.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number611
JournalTranslational psychiatry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Biological Psychiatry


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