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Risk Factors

Risk factors are often confused as warning signs of suicide. 

It is important to note, however, that factors identified as “increasing risk” are not factors that cause or predict a suicide attempt. Risk factors are characteristics that make it more likely that an individual will consider, attempt or die by suicide. Protective factors are characteristics that make it less likely that individuals will consider, attempt or die by suicide. Suicide prevention seeks to reduce the factors that increase suicide risk while increasing the factors that protect people from suicide.

Risk Factors

Characteristics of a person or his or her environment that increase the likelihood that they will die by suicide. Major risk factors include:

  • Prior suicide attempt(s)
  • Misuse and abuse of alcohol or other drugs
  • Mental disorders, particularly depression and other mood disorders
  • Access to lethal means
  • Knowing someone who died by suicide, particularly a family member
  • Social isolation
  • Chronic disease and disability
  • Lack of access to behavioral health care

Risk Factors Can Vary Across Groups

Risk factors can vary by age group, culture, sex, and other characteristics. For example:

  • Stress resulting from prejudice and discrimination (family rejection, bullying, violence) is a known risk factor for suicide attempts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth.
  • The historical trauma suffered by American Indians and Alaska Natives (resettlement, destruction of cultures and economies) contributes to the high suicide rate in this population.
  • For men in the middle years, stressors that challenge traditional male roles, such as unemployment and divorce, have been identified as important risk factors.

Precipitating Factors and Warning Signs

Precipitating factors are stressful events that can trigger a suicidal crisis in a vulnerable person. Examples include:

  • End of a relationship or marriage
  • Death of a loved one
  • An arrest
  • Serious financial problems

Protective Factors 

Protective factors are personal or environmental characteristics that help protect people from suicide. Major protective factors for suicide include:

  • Effective behavioral health care
  • Connectedness to individuals, family, community, and social institutions
  • Life skills (including problem solving skills and coping skills, ability to adapt to change)
  • Self-esteem and a sense of purpose or meaning in life
  • Cultural, religious, or personal beliefs that discourage suicide

Adapted from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center's Risk and Protective Factors