5 Suicide Risk Factors You Need to Know About

Find out how to get help if you’re having suicidal thoughts.

depressed woman in darkness

Updated on August 22, 2023.

It’s troubling but true: suicide rates in the United States have been on the rise for years. The number of suicides in the U.S. reached an all-time high in 2022, according to provisional data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). An estimated 49,449 people died by suicide last year—a 2.6 percent increase from 2021.

Every race, gender, and age group is affected, and the thoughts and events leading up to suicide are just as diverse.

“Just like you’ve never met two people with the same personality, the causes of suicide also vary according to the individual person’s experience, their life circumstances, their current situation and personal history,” says licensed clinical social worker Doug Webster, LCSW.  

However, there are certain situations that increase the chances of someone taking their own life, explains Webster. Here are five risk factors for suicide explained, plus information on how to get help if you or someone you know is contemplating suicide.

Having a history of attempted suicide: The number one risk factor for completing a suicide is having attempted one in the past. Research has shown that up to half of those who take their own lives have a history of previous suicide attempts.

“It’s a pattern of behavior,” explains Webster. “Think of it like this: You bite your nails, but you work hard to break the habit. Later, when you’re under stress, your fingers may go back to your mouth without you even thinking about it. In a similar way, suicidal thoughts become part of how your brain responds to stress.”

If you’ve attempted suicide before, you may have unresolved feelings like confusion or fear related to the experience. It’s important to build a support team to help you work through those feelings and reduce your risk of another attempt:

Find a counselor who performs cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of talk therapy that can help you identify and overcome harmful thoughts.

Share your experience with trusted family members and friends. They can listen when you need to vent, plus it’s important for them to know how to help if you have suicidal thoughts again.

If you aren’t comfortable discussing your emotions with loved ones, someone is always available to listen on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255 or call, text, or chat 988. You can also find resources and social support through their website.

Having a chronic mental illness: People with certain mental illnesses are more likely to complete a suicide. Those with clinical depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse disorders and schizophrenia may be at especially high risk.

If you have a mental health condition, your risk can increase even further during these times:

  • When adjusting to a new psychiatric prescription like certain types of antidepressants: If you have suicidal thoughts after starting a new medication, contact your psychiatrist immediately. It’s typical to need a few changes to your medication before finding the one that works best for you. During that adjustment period, it’s especially important to be open about what you’re feeling.
  • In the first few weeks after being discharged from a psychiatric hospital: Before you or a loved one is sent home, make an action plan for what you’ll do in case you experience suicidal thoughts. Include a list of resources and phone numbers to call if you need help.

Being open with your therapist and taking your medications as prescribed can help keep suicidal thoughts at bay.

“I’ve seen people with severe mental illnesses who, with the proper treatment, make a significant recovery from the greatest depths of their illness,” says Webster. “When their mental health improves, they realize just how much of a negative impact the untreated illness was having on their life.”

Suffering a major loss: Every person defines “loss” according to what matters most to them and everyone experiences grief differently. However, certain losses are more often linked to suicide:

Losing a spouse to death or divorce: This is one reason why the elderly are at especially high risk for suicide. If you know an older person who recently lost their spouse, check in on them regularly. Be there to listen if they want to talk and be aware of the warning signs of suicide.

Having a terminal or chronic illness: Illness can come with a series of painful losses—job loss, loss of independence, appearance changes, family upheaval and others. If you become depressed after a new diagnosis, speak with a counselor, and consider joining a support group.

“Everybody has, at one point or another, thought about suicide—maybe briefly during a time of great loss,” says Webster. “But when the occasional, fleeting thought persists to where you’re going through the day saying, ‘I wish I was dead,’ or, ‘I wish I’d go to sleep and not wake up,’ it’s become a process of how you respond to the world—and it’s time to get help.”

Having a family history of suicide: When a person completes a suicide, it affects at least three generations, says Webster. The individuals who are immediately affected, particularly the person’s siblings, roughly double their risk.

The effects are seen throughout the family, he explains. When someone loses a loved one to suicide, it impacts their whole life: how they think, how they react to stress and how they respond to new situations. Those thought patterns and the increased risk that come with them are passed down to their children as well.

Occupations with exposure to violence or suicide: Certain professions are believed to present a higher risk for suicide, possibly because workers in these fields witness other deaths and suicides without always receiving adequate follow-up mental health care. High-risk professions include:

  • Law enforcement and correction officers
  • First responders
  • Healthcare professionals, especially doctors
  • Military personnel

Veterans have a much higher risk of suicide compared with the general population, says Webster. The average number of Veteran suicides each day rose from 16.4 in 2001 to 16.8 in 2020, according to a 2022 report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. After adjusting for population age and sex differences, the suicide rate for Veterans was 57.3 percent higher than non-Veteran U.S. adults.

If you’re returning from active duty, there are people and resources available to help you transition back to civilian life:

  • VA Vet Centers: These community centers and mobile units can be found across the country. Centers offer pre-paid counseling, social services and help with job placement.
  • Vet Call Center: Dial 877-WAR-VETS (877-927-8387). Call centers are staffed by other service members who can answer questions about mental health services or simply listen.
  • Free smart phone apps for veterans: Download PTSD Coach for help with post-traumatic stress disorder, CBT-i Coach for help with insomnia or ACT Coach for depression support, PTSD and other trauma-related difficulties. Apps aren’t meant to replace counseling; use them for additional support along with talk-therapy.

If you suspect that you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, don’t brush off your instincts. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call, text, or chat 988. If someone is actively considering suicide, stay with them and call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room.

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