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 behaviours.
Thinking about heart disease can help 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 may have a 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.
We have provided a general list of risk factors and warning signs for suicide below. We encourage those who are interested in toolkits or fact sheets with more detailed information to visit the Centre for Suicide Prevention’s resource library: https://www.suicideinfo.ca/resources/
Risk Factors for Suicide
Risk factors for suicide are characteristics, conditions, or experiences that increase the chance that a person will engage in suicidal behaviour. When multiple risk factors outweigh the factors that build resiliency, there is an increased likelihood that a person may think about suicide (Sharam et al., 2021). It is important to remember that no single factor can predict suicide, and the presence of risk factors is different from person to person over their lifetime.
Risk factors for suicide include:
- Mental disorder or illness, including alcohol or substance misuse or abuse.
- Previous suicide attempt.
- Serious, long-term medical condition and/or chronic pain.
- Trauma, which may include:
- Victimization, like bullying
- Childhood abuse or neglect
- A family death by suicide
- Events that affect multiple generations of your family.
- Significant loss, such as:
- Personal (e.g. loss of a relationship)
- Social or Cultural (e.g. loss of connection to social or cultural group, practices, or traditions).
- Financial (e.g. loss of income or assets, such as housing).
- Major life changes or stressors such as:
- Periods of transition such as retirement or becoming a parent or guardian.
- Lack of access to or availability of mental health services
- Personal identity struggles
- Difficulty with problem-solving or coping with challenging emotions or experiences.
(Government of Canada, 2016; O’Connor, 2021).
Warning Signs for Suicide
People who die by suicide usually show some indication of warning before their deaths. Warning signs include things that can be seen or heard (e.g. behaviours), but also include things that may be more difficult to observe (e.g. thoughts or feelings). Warning signs are also called invitations for help because that’s what they are! When someone is displaying warning signs for suicide, it is our invitation to start a caring conversation with them. Recognizing the warning signs for suicide can help us to intervene and keep someone safe from suicide.
Warning Signs (Behaviour):
- A lack of interest in usual activities or personal appearance.
- Isolation or withdrawal from family or friends.
- Engaging in risky or destructive behaviour that is out of character for the person.
- Changes in sleep habits and appetite, including sleeping more/less or eating more/less.
- Looking for means or methods of suicide.
- Talking about a specific suicide plan.
- A preoccupation with death, including talking or joking about death.
- Acting irritable or agitated, showing rage.
Warning Signs (Mood/Feelings):
- Ongoing sadness or indifference.
- Feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, or hopelessness.
- Ambivalent or hopeless outlook on the future.
- Feeling trapped, desperate, or needing to escape an intolerable situation.
- Feeling like a burden to others.
- Sudden happiness or calmness after a period of distress.
(Source: Government of Canada, 2022; American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2023).
Individuals who have risk factors and show warning signs for suicide should be evaluated for possible suicide risk by a medical doctor or mental health professional.
Remember, if someone is showing warning signs for suicide, also known as invitations for help, you can respond by having a caring conversation. To learn more about having the conversation, visit: I Think Someone I Know is at Risk – WRSPC
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (2023). Risk factors, protective factors, and warning signs. Accessed from: Risk factors, protective factors, and warning signs | AFSP
Government of Canada. (2016). Suicide: risks and prevention. Accessed from: Suicide: risks and prevention – Canada.ca
Government of Canada (2022). Preventing suicide: Warning signs and how to help. Accessed from: Preventing suicide: Warning signs and how to help – Canada.ca
O’Connor, Rory. (2021). When it is Darkest: Why People Die by Suicide and What We Can Do to Prevent It. Vermillion.
Shahram, S. et al. (2020). Promoting “Zest for Life”: A Systemic Literature review of Resiliency Factors to Prevent Youth Suicide. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 31(1), 4-24.