Suicide Risk Factors: What You Need to Know

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Suicide is among the leading causes of death. Would you be able to tell if someone you knew were thinking about suicide? If you're like most people, you're not sure. What you can be sure of, however, is that increasing your knowledge of suicide risk factors, and getting better at spotting them, could one day make a life-saving difference to someone you meet or know. 

Suicide Is More Common Than You May Think

It's common among people with mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder), and it's remarkably common among people with borderline personality disorder (BPD).

In fact, about 70% of people with BPD will make at least one suicide attempt in their lifetime, many will make more than one, and 8% to 10% of them will succeed in killing themselves. That's more than 50 times the rate of suicide in the general population.

Two Types of Suicide Risk Factors. This article discusses two kinds of risk factors for suicide attempts: distal risk factors and proximal risk factors.

Usually people who attempt suicide have some combination of the many possible distal and proximal suicide risk factors. The lists below describe some that you should know about.

Distal Suicide Risk Factors

Psychiatric Diagnosis. Any psychiatric diagnosis is a risk factor for suicide. However, certain diagnoses carry the greatest risk.

These are depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse disorders, and personality disorders. In addition, people with comorbid conditions (more than one disease or condition occurring at the same time) are at higher suicide risk.

Previous Suicide Attempts. Someone who's made at least one suicide attempt has a much greater risk of trying it again.


Family History of Suicide Attempts or Completed Suicide. A person's risk of a suicide attempt increases if a member of the person's family has attempted or committed suicide. 

Proximal Suicide Risk Factors

Recent Onset of Suicidal Thoughts. Most suicide attempts occur within one year of first having suicidal thoughts. So it's critical that a person who starts having them receive treatment within a year.

Hopelessness. Feelings of hopelessness can be an immediate risk factor for suicide attempts.

Existence of a Suicide Plan. Not everyone who has a plan for suicide will carry it out. But having such a plan can mean that a suicide attempt will happen very soon.

Access to Firearms. Among suicide risk factors, this one is extremely dangerous. Having firearms nearby that aren't stored safely can shorten the time between thinking about suicide and attempting it. 

A Major Loss or Stressful Event. Many people who attempt suicide say they experienced a stressful event--such as loss of a job, death of a loved one, a major financial loss, or divorce--immediately prior to the attempt.

"Contagion" From Another's Suicide. The suicide "contagion effect" (similar to the spreading of disease-causing germs) is well documented in suicide research. A person is more likely to attempt suicide after recently learning about someone else who did it.

Imprisonment. A person recently released from prison is at high risk for suicide and should be monitored for signs of a possible attempt.

Be on the Alert for Suicide Risk Factors 

Many people with one or more suicide risk factors are not in danger of attempting suicide. But for those who are, having their suicide risk factors recognized and receiving help to keep them from attempting it can be life-saving.

If you think that you or a loved one has some of these factors, consider making an appointment with a mental health professional for a suicide-risk assessment. If the person is at very high risk, it may make sense to schedule these assessments on a regular basis.

You should also be aware that someone at high risk for suicide should have a safety plan in place to lessen the chance that an attempt will occur. For more information on safety planning, see “How to Create a Safety Plan.”

To learn more about what to do if you or someone else is at immediate risk of suicide, see “What to Do in a Crisis.”


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Nock MK, Borges G, Bromet EJ, Angermeyer M, Bruffaerts R, de Girolamo G, de Graaf R, Haro JM, Karam E, Williams D, Posada-Villa J, Ono Y, Medina-Mora ME, Levinson D, Lepine JP, Kessler RC, Huang Y, Gureje O, Gluzman S, Chiu WT, Beautrais A, Alonso J. “Cross-national Prevalence and Risk Factors for Suicidal Ideation, Plans and Attempts.” British Journal of Psychiatry. 192(2):98-105, 2008.

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