Risk factors may be thought of as leading to or being associated with suicide. This means that people who “possess” the risk factor are at a greater potential for suicidal behavior. Protective factors, on the other hand, reduce the likelihood of suicide. They enhance resilience and may help to counterbalance risk factors.
However, the impact of some risk factors can clearly be reduced by certain interventions such as providing medication or strengthening social support in a community (Baldessarini, Tando, & Hennen, 1999). Risk factors that cannot be changed (such as a previous suicide attempt) can alert others to the heightened risk of suicide during periods of the recurrence of a mental or substance abuse disorder or following a significant stressful life event (Oquendo et al., 1999).
Protective factors are quite varied and include an individual’s attitudinal and behavioral characteristics, as well as attributes of the environment and culture (Plutchik & Van Praag, 1994). Some of the most important risk and protective factors are outlined below.
Protective Factors for Suicide
- Effective clinical care for mental, physical and substance use disorders
- Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for helpseeking
- Restricted access to highly lethal means of suicide
- Strong connections to family and community support
- Support through ongoing medical and mental health care relationships
- Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution and nonviolent handling of disputes
- Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support self preservation
- However, positive resistance to suicide is not permanent, so programs that support and maintain protection against suicide should be ongoing.
Biopsychosocial Risk Factors for Suicide
- Mental disorders, particularly mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and certain personality disorders
- Alcohol and other substance use disorders
- Impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies
- History of trauma or abuse
- Some major physical illnesses
- Previous suicide attempt
- Family history of suicide
Environmental Risk Factors for Suicide
- Job or financial loss
- Relational or social loss
- Easy access to lethal means
- Local clusters of suicide that have a contagious influence
Socialcultural Risk Factors
- Lack of social support and sense of isolation
- Stigma associated with help-seeking behavior
- Barriers to accessing health care, especially mental health and substance abuse treatment
- Certain cultural and religious beliefs (for instance, the belief that suicide is a noble resolution of a personal dilemma)
- Exposure to, including through the media, and influence of others who have died by suicide
Information about risk and protective factors for attempted suicide is more limited than that on suicide. As a result, it is not yet possible to say with certainty that risk and protective factors for suicide and non-lethal forms of self-injury are the same.