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Objectively Assessed Sleep Variability as an Acute Warning Sign of Suicidal Ideation in a Longitudinal Evaluation of Young Adults at High Suicide Risk

Rebecca A. Bernert, PhD; Melanie A. Hom, MS; Naomi G. Iwata, MSc; and Thomas E. Joiner, PhD

Published: June 28, 2017

Article Abstract

Objective: Young adults attempt suicide at disproportionately high rates relative to other groups and demonstrate high rates of sleep disturbance. No study has yet prospectively evaluated disturbed sleep as an acute indicator of risk using an objective index of sleep. We investigated objective and subjective parameters of disturbed sleep as a warning sign of suicidal ideation among young adults over an acute period.

Methods: A longitudinal study across a 21-day observation period and 3 time points. Fifty of 4,847 participants (aged 18-23 years) were prescreened from a university undergraduate research pool (February 2007-June 2008) on the basis of suicide attempt history and recent suicidal ideation. Actigraphic and subjective sleep parameters were evaluated as acute predictors of suicidal ideation (Beck Scale for Suicide Ideation), with adjustment for baseline symptoms. Hierarchical regression analyses were employed to predict residual change scores.

Results: Ninety-six percent of participants (n = 48) endorsed a suicide attempt history. Mean actigraphy values revealed objectively disturbed sleep parameters; 78% (n = 39) and 36% (n = 18) endorsed clinically significant insomnia and nightmares, respectively. When results were controlled for baseline suicidal and depressive symptoms, actigraphic and subjective sleep parameters predicted suicidal ideation residual change scores at 7- and 21-day follow-ups (P < .001). Specifically, actigraphy-defined variability in sleep timing, insomnia, and nightmares predicted increases in suicidal ideation (P < .05). In a test of competing risk factors, sleep variability outperformed depressive symptoms in the longitudinal prediction of suicidal ideation across time points (P < .05).

Conclusions: Objectively and subjectively measured sleep disturbances predicted acute suicidal ideation increases in this population, independent of depressed mood. Self-reported insomnia and nightmares and actigraphically assessed sleep variability emerged as acute warning signs of suicidal ideation. These findings highlight the potential utility of sleep as a proposed biomarker of suicide risk and a therapeutic target.

Volume: 78

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