Suicide and suicide-related behaviors are prevalent yet notoriously difficult to predict. Specifically, short-term predictors and correlates of suicide risk remain largely unknown. Ecological momentary assessment (EMA) may be used to assess how suicidal thoughts and behaviors (STBs) unfold in real-world contexts. We conducted a systematic literature review of EMA studies in suicide research to assess (1) how EMA has been utilized in the study of STBs (i.e., methodology, findings), and (2) the feasibility, validity and safety of EMA in the study of STBs. We identified 45 articles, detailing 23 studies. Studies mainly focused on examining how known longitudinal predictors of suicidal ideation perform within shorter (hourly, daily) time frames. Recent studies have explored the prospects of digital phenotyping of individuals with suicidal ideation. The results indicate that suicidal ideation fluctuates substantially over time (hours, days), and that individuals with higher mean ideation also have more fluctuations. Higher suicidal ideation instability may represent a phenotypic indicator for increased suicide risk. Few studies succeeded in establishing prospective predictors of suicidal ideation beyond prior ideation itself. Some studies show negative affect, hopelessness and burdensomeness to predict increased ideation within-day, and sleep characteristics to impact next-day ideation. The feasibility of EMA is encouraging: agreement to participate in EMA research was moderate to high (median = 77%), and compliance rates similar to those in other clinical samples (median response rate = 70%). More individuals reported suicidal ideation through EMA than traditional (retrospective) self-report measures. Regarding safety, no evidence was found of systematic reactivity of mood or suicidal ideation to repeated assessments of STBs. In conclusion, suicidal ideation can fluctuate substantially over short periods of time, and EMA is a suitable method for capturing these fluctuations. Some specific predictors of subsequent ideation have been identified, but these findings warrant further replication. While repeated EMA assessments do not appear to result in systematic reactivity in STBs, participant burden and safety remains a consideration when studying high-risk populations. Considerations for designing and reporting on EMA studies in suicide research are discussed.
Keywords: ambulatory assessment; electronic diary; experience sampling method; suicidal ideation; suicide attempt.
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