Is Suicide Preventable? Know the Risk and Protective Factors

September 2019

The number of people who lose their lives to suicide each year continues to grow. In 2017, suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., taking more than 47,000 lives that year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. With the stakes so high, the focus is increasingly on prevention, including identifying risk factors and getting timely intervention for those with suicidal thoughts. Be aware of the risks and the ways to protect yourself. And remember that a loved one can make a world of difference.

Are you or a loved one at risk?
While suicide is typically completely unexpected, there are often underlying risk factors. However, it’s important to note that there’s no single cause for suicide. These are potential suicide risk factors you can be on the lookout for, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Family history of suicide
  • History of mental illness, especially major depression
  • Family history of child abuse
  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • History of alcohol and substance abuse
  • Feelings of hopelessness, loneliness or isolation
  • Impulsive or aggressive behavior
  • Difficulty with accessing mental health treatment
  • Personal loss, such as a divorce, death, job firing or financial loss
  • Physical illness or a chronic medical condition
  • Easy access to lethal means, especially firearms
  • Refusal to get help because of the stigma attached to mental health and substance abuse disorders or to suicidal thoughts
  • Local suicide epidemics

What can you do to protect yourself or a loved one?
The good news is that it may be possible to reduce the risk of suicide. Mental health professionals and suicide prevention organizations, such as the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, are exploring the concept of suicide protective factors—that is, personal or environmental characteristics that make you less susceptible to suicide.

These are some of the protective factors that researchers believe can help protect you or those you love against suicide:

  • Feeling connected to and supported by others, including family, friends, your community and social institutions.
  • Having self-esteem and a sense of purpose or meaning in life.
  • Using life skills—such as stress management, nonviolent conflict resolution, critical thinking and coping skills—to help you face new challenges, such as relationship problems, financial
  • problems, physical illness, sudden trauma and aging.
  • Being resilient—defined as being able to adapt to stress and adversity.
  • Having cultural, religious or personal beliefs that discourage suicide.
  • Having easy access to effective care and intervention for mental and physical health, as well as care for any substance abuse disorders.

Some of these protective factors may be more fixed, such as your cultural or religious beliefs. Others you can improve upon or learn to incorporate into your life. They can provide a basis for action, such as enrolling in a conflict resolution workshop if you’re going through a divorce, or practicing meditation or mindfulness to handle daily stress.

Get help
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of self-harm, get help immediately. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or use the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. Both services operate 24/7.

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