What factors can increase a person's risk of suicide?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Research shows that risk factors for suicide include:

  • Depression and other mental disorders, or a substance-abuse disorder (often in combination with other mental disorders).

More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have these risk factors:

  • Prior suicide attempt
  • Family history of mental disorder or substance abuse
  • Family history of suicide
  • Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
  • Firearms in the home, the method used in more than half of suicides Incarceration
  • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, such as family members, peers, or media figures
  • However, suicide and suicidal behavior are not normal responses to stress; many people have these risk factors, but are not suicidal

Research also shows that the risk for suicide is associated with changes in brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Decreased levels of serotonin have been found in people with depression, impulsive disorders, and a history of suicide attempts, and in the brains of suicide victims.

This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Low levels of serotonin are associated with the risk for suicide. Research has shown diminished serotonin levels in the brains of suicide victims. It is not surprising that depression is one of the strongest risk factors for suicide in the adult population, along with alcohol abuse, cocaine use and divorce and separation. Additional risk factors for suicide in youth include aggressive or disruptive behaviors. The main risk factors for suicide in all populations include the following:
  • aggression
  • depression
  • divorce or separation
  • exposure to suicidal behavior of others (e.g., family members, peers or via news or fictional stories)
  • family history of mental or substance abuse disorder
  • family history of suicide
  • family violence (physical or sexual abuse)
  • firearms in the home
  • incarceration
  • prior suicide attempt
  • substance abuse
In the general population, indicators for suicide are:
  • Death of a loved one
  • Loss of employment
  • Loss of a girlfriend/boyfriend
  • Inability to work
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Divorce of family member or self may be too much to bear
  • "Copycat" effect. Hearing about a suicide may prompt the action in the person. Family organizations have warned media not to publicize suicides to avoid this phenomenon.
  • Suicide may be precipitated by easy access to a means of killing one's self, such as living high up in an apartment building.
  • Access to a weapon
  • Immediately following discharge from hospital people are very vulnerable. Quite often they are not yet stable. The incidence of suicide is high among people with mental illness at this time. Careful discharge plans should be made by the hospital team and the family. If the family is not sure when the patient is to be sent home, a family member should seek this information soon after admission. Sometimes families are not advised that the patient is to be discharged.
  • Feelings of being alone, not having family or other support may influence a person who is already troubled.
  • Suicide is more likely to happen when the family is away from home and leaves the ill person behind.
  • Persons living alone with few friends and very few visitors have a high incidence of suicide. If this is your situation, visit phone or mail postcards or greetings cards regularly to keep in touch. Access to the internet can be a source of social contact for people living alone.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.