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Stanford University School of Medicine

Sleep disturbances can warn of suicidal thoughts, Stanford study finds

Sleep disturbances can warn of worsening suicidal thoughts in young adults, a study published today in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found. The effects of sleep problems on suicide risk were not related to the severity of individuals' depression.

The study, led by Stanford suicidologist Rebecca Bernert, PhD, was the first to objectively assess sleep quality as a short-term marker of suicide in at-risk young adults. Bernert's team had previously found a link between self-reported sleep problems and suicide risk in older adults.

In the new study, the researchers measured sleep patterns in 50 young adults who had prior suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Every night for a week, the subjects wore watchlike devices to monitor wrist movements during sleep. They kept sleep diaries and answered questionnaires about insomnia, nightmares and other aspects of sleep quality. At the beginning and end of the week, and again 21 days after the start of the study, they also answered questions about their depression levels, alcohol use and suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Poor sleep -- especially having a lot of variation in the times that subjects fell asleep and woke for the day -- was correlated with a worsening of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Insomnia and nightmares also independently predicted risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Bernert's team is now testing whether a short, medication-free intervention to teach better sleep patterns can reduce suicidal thoughts in at-risk groups. She explained her hopes for the approach in our press release:

Compared to other risk factors for suicide, disturbed sleep is modifiable and highly treatable using brief, fast-acting interventions. Because sleep is something we universally experience, and we may be more willing to openly talk about it relative to our mental health, we believe its study may represent an important opportunity for suicide prevention.

For help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 873-TALK, or text the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741). All helplines offer free, confidential support 24 hours a day. 

Previously: Stanford researcher examines link between sleep troubles and suicide in older adults, From A to ZZZZs: The trouble with teen sleep and Stanford psychiatrist comments on federal report about Santa Clara County youth suicides
Photo by Martino Sabia

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