Risk factors describe factors that may increase the chance that an individual will engage in suicidal behavior, while warning signs are indications that an individual may currently be struggling with suicidal thoughts or actions.

Thinking about heart disease helps to make this clear. Risk factors for heart disease include smoking, obesity, and high cholesterol. Having these factors does not mean that someone is having a heart attack right now, but rather that there is an increased chance that they will have heart attack at some time. Warning signs of a heart attack are chest pain, shortness of breath, and nausea. These signs mean that the person may be having a heart attack right now and needs immediate help.

Risk Factors For Suicide

Risk factors for suicide are characteristics or conditions that increase the chance that a person may try to take their own life. Suicide risk tends to be highest when someone has several risk factors at the same time. Commonly cited risk factors include:

  •  Mental disorders, in particular:
    • Depression or bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder
    • Alcohol or substance abuse or dependence
    • Schizophrenia
    • Borderline or antisocial personality disorder
    • Conduct disorder (in youth)
    • Psychotic disorders; psychotic symptoms in the context of any disorder
    • Anxiety disorders
  • Impulsivity and aggression, especially in the context of the above mental disorders
  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Family history of attempted or completed suicide
  • Serious medical condition and/or pain

It is important to bear in mind that the large majority of people with mental disorders or other suicide risk factors do not engage in suicidal behavior. Additionally, not everyone who engages in suicidal behavior will have one or more of these risk factors.

Environmental Factors That Increase Suicide Risk

Environmental factors may also increase the risk of suicidal behavior, especially when the individual also has one or more of the risk factors above. These environmental factors can include:

  • A highly stressful life event such as losing someone close, financial loss, or trouble with the law
  • Prolonged stress due to adversities such as unemployment, serious relationship conflict, harassment or bullying
  • Exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide (contagion)
  • Access to lethal methods of suicide during a time of increased risk

Again, though, it is important to remember that these factors do not usually increase suicide risk for people who are not already vulnerable, and it is not necessary for an environmental risk factor to be present for an individual to be at risk of suicide. Exposure to extreme or prolonged environmental stress, however, can lead to depression, anxiety, and other disorders that in turn, can increase risk for suicide.

Warning Signs For Suicide

As with heart attacks, people who die by suicide usually show some indication of warning before their deaths. Recognizing the warning signs for suicide can help us to intervene to save a life. Some common warning signs that an individual who is planning to kill themselves may show before they take action include:

  • Ongoing sadness or indifference
  • A lack of interest in usual activities, personal appearance, belongings, socializing, or friends, or a loss of the ability to feel pleasure
  • Making statements such as: “What’s the use?”, “I can’t take it anymore”, “I might as well be dead”, “You’re better off without me”, or “Nobody cares if I’m here”
  • A preoccupation with death
  • Expressions of helplessness, worthlessness and/or hopelessness
  • Engagement in destructive or risky behaviour like substance abuse or reckless driving
  • Changes in appetite or sleep habits, insomnia
  • Ambivalence, hopeless outlook
  • Suddenly seems happier or calmer after a period of distress
  • Talking about wanting to kill themselves, or saying they wish they were dead
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as hoarding medicine or buying a gun
  • Talking about a specific suicide plan
  • Feeling trapped, desperate, or needing to escape from an intolerable situation
  • Having the feeling of being a burden to others
  • Having intense anxiety and/or panic attacks
  • Becoming socially isolated and withdrawn from friends, family, and others
  • Acting irritable or agitated
  • Showing rage, or talking about seeking revenge for being victimized or rejected, whether or not the situations the person describes seem real

Individuals who show such behaviors should be evaluated for possible suicide risk by a medical doctor or mental health professional.

Further Reading: I think someone I know is at risk for suicide

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