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Understanding Suicide, Its Risk Factors, and Protective Factors

Although researchers do not know the exact cause or causes of suicide in most people, they do know a number of risk factors that increase a person's chances of committing suicide. Understanding these risk factors is the first step in preventing suicide.
Some of these risk factors include:
  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • A history of mental disorders, particularly depression
  • A history of alcohol and substance abuse
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies
  • Physical illness
  • Barriers to accessing mental health treatment
  • Loss (relational, social, work, or financial)
  • A family history of suicide
  • A family history of child maltreatment
  • Easy access to lethal methods
  • An unwillingness to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental health and substance abuse disorders or suicidal thoughts
  • Cultural and religious beliefs -- for instance, the belief that suicide is a noble resolution of a personal dilemma
  • Local epidemics of suicide
  • Isolation, or a feeling of being cut off from other people.
Although these risk factors do place individuals at a higher risk of suicide, very few people with these risk factors will actually commit suicide.
Protective factors are just the opposite of risk factors. Protective factors buffer people from the risks associated with suicide. A number of protective factors for suicide have been identified:
  • Effective clinical care for mental, physical, and substance abuse disorders
  • Support from ongoing medical and mental healthcare relationships
  • Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for those seeking help
  • Family and community support
  • Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and nonviolent ways of handling disputes
  • Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support self-preservation instincts.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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