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Risk Factors for Suicide and Suicidal Behaviors

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Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and approximately 47,000 Americans die by suicide every year. Globally, it is an even larger issue, contributing to the death of approximately 1 million people every year, making it one of the leading causes of death worldwide.

Suicidal behaviors refer to talking about or taking actions related to suicide. Suicidal ideation refers to having thoughts of suicide or making plans to die by suicide. These thoughts or behaviors should be considered a psychiatric emergency, and immediate medical treatment should be sought. 

Suicide is often the result of a range of factors rather than one single event. Each of these risk factors may increase the possibility that an individual will attempt suicide. Risk factors for suicide can be at the individual, relationship, community, and societal levels. Among these risk factors are the following:

Individual Risk Factors:

  • Prior suicide attempts
  • Making threats or comments about suicide or suicidal ideation
  • History of depression, bipolar disorder, or other mental health diagnoses
  • Substance abuse
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Serious illnesses, such as those that result in chronic pain
  • Financial issues
  • Job-related or family problems
  • History of traumatic childhood experiences
  • Feeling hopeless 
  • Victim or perpetrator or violent crimes
  • Problems controlling impulses and aggression
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Prolonged stress

Relationship Risk Factors:

  • Problems with family members or coworkers
  • History of bullying
  • Family history of suicide
  • Loss of relationships
  • Violent relationships
  • Social isolation

Community & Societal Risk Factors:

  • Access to lethal means, such as firearms or lethal drugs
  • Lack of healthcare or mental health treatment
  • The stigma associated with mental illness and treatment
  • Community violence
  • Discrimination
  • Irresponsible depictions of suicide in the media
  • Historical trauma

Several groups experience suicide at higher rates than others, including men, people ages 45 and older, Caucasians, American Indians, and Alaskan Natives.

In addition to looking for risk factors, there are multiple warning signs that someone may attempt suicide. While it is impossible to identify whether they are having suicidal thoughts, outward warning signs may include: 

  • Talking about feeling like a burden or feeling hopeless
  • Seeking social isolation and avoiding activities they may have previously enjoyed
  • Increased anxiety
  • Talking about wanting to die, feeling trapped, or being in unbearable pain
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Making inquiries about accessing lethal means
  • Increased anger or rage
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Posting on social media about wanting to die
  • Making plans for suicide
  • Demonstrating increased impulsive, aggressive, or reckless behaviors
  • Making a will or giving away personal possessions
  • Eating too little or too much, which may result in dramatic weight gain or loss
  • Expressing rage or a desire to seek revenge
  • Loss of interest in daily activities
  • Chronic irritability
  • Showing a sudden improvement 

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, spotting these warning signs and getting help quickly can be one of the biggest ways to prevent suicide deaths. If you notice someone demonstrating suicidal behaviors, you may respond by:

  • Taking them to the emergency room or calling an ambulance for immediate medical intervention.
  • Removing any lethal means in the vicinity.
  • Calling or texting the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.
  • Keeping them safe and being present while waiting for medical assistance.
  • Following up with them after medical intervention and listen, but do not judge, argue, threaten, or yell. 

In addition to the actions you can take to prevent an imminent suicide threat, it’s beneficial for friends and family to understand the protective factors that may decrease the risk of someone actually carrying out a suicide attempt. These include:

  • Developing effective coping and problem-solving skills
  • Identifying reasons to live, such as family, friends, and pets
  • Developing supportive relationships, including relationships with friends and family members.
  • Feeling connected to others, including groups at school, in the community, and at other social institutions.
  • Developing a strong sense of cultural identity.
  • Reducing access to lethal means. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also advises accessing the Suicide Prevention Resource for Action if you know anyone displaying suicidal behaviors. This prevention resource looks at various strategies to help communities and families identify activities with the greatest potential to prevent suicide. These activities include:

  • Looking at and strengthening economic supports
  • Creating protective and supportive environments
  • Improving access to mental health resources and suicide responses/care
  • Promoting health connections and relationships
  • Teaching coping and problem-solving skills
  • Identifying people at risk to prevent current and future risks of suicide

Thoughts of suicide, suicidal ideation, and threats of suicide should always be taken seriously. In many instances, these deaths may be prevented by showing compassion and ensuring the individual gets the appropriate medical treatment and feels supported throughout the process. These small steps may reduce the risk that another family suffers the devastating loss of a loved one by suicide.

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