Risk and protective factors for suicide

Information on this page may be distressing for people with a lived experience of suicide.  If you need assistance, please contact a crisis service.

There is no single factor that contributes to suicide, suicidal ideation or suicidal thinking or suicidal behaviour.  The factors that contribute to someone taking their own life can be very complex.

A traditional method of understanding suicide and opportunities to prevent suicide are based on reducing known risk factors for suicide and increasing protective factors.

Risk factors

Risk factors increase the likelihood of suicidal behaviour. Known risk factors include:

  • prior suicide attempt(s) – the major risk factor for suicide. Risk is highest during the initial week post attempt, and continues to remain high during the following year post attempt
  • alcohol and/or other drug misuse and abuse
  • mental ill-health - mood disorders, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, and substance-related disorders
  • access to lethal means
  • sense of hopelessness
  • relationship breakdowns
  • unemployment or financial stress
  • bereavement and bereavement after suicide
  • social isolation
  • chronic disease and chronic pain
  • childhood and/or adult trauma
  • imprisonment/incarceration
  • exposure to suicidal behaviour of others 
  • exposure to sensational media reporting about suicide deaths.

Protective factors

Protective factors reduce the likelihood of suicidal behaviours and improve a person's ability to cope with difficult circumstances. Known protective factors include:

  • employment
  • social support and connectedness in stable relationships
  • children under 18 living at home
  • balanced physical health
  • plans for the future, engaging in meaningful activities and sense of purpose
  • strong reasons for living
  • access and availability to effective mental health care
  • life skills (problem solving, coping skills and adaptability to change)
  • cultural beliefs that discourage suicide
  • religious beliefs that discourage suicide.

Risk and protective factors are often at opposite ends of the same continuum and there is a complex interaction between a range of risk and protective factors over the lifespan of each individual.

Suicidal behaviour is complex and we know that certain populations or socio-economic groups are more at risk than others. Awareness of protective and risk factors for priority populations is crucial in terms of mental health promotion, prevention and intervention approaches.

Self-Harm

Although self-harm is usually without deliberate attempt to end one’s life, there is an elevated risk of suicide in individuals who self-harm.  

Further information about self-harm as a risk factor

In this section

Warning signs

Behaviours that may indicate a person may be at immediate risk of suicide.