Risk factors refer to anything about the individual that increases the likelihood that someone might engage in suicidal behaviors anytime in the future. Risk factors are not necessarily directly observable, but they often have related observable actions.
Compare this to the common cold. Risk factors for coming down with a cold include lack of sleep, poor diet, a hectic schedule, and exposure to germs. Any of these, by themselves, do not indicate you will get a cold, but they do indicate increased risk of doing so.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, some key suicide risk factors are:
- Past suicide attempts
- Depression, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric disorders
- Alcohol dependence
- Family history of suicide
- Access to or familiarity with lethal means (especially firearms)
- Gender (male)
- Age (the elderly)
- A history of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, as a child.
Someone might have all the risk factors for a common cold, but never catch one. Similarly, someone could have many risk factors for suicide, yet never experience suicidal ideation. However, the presence of the risk factors does make it more likely in both cases.
Depression and Suicide
Although most depressed people are not suicidal, most suicidal people are depressed. According to the American Association of Suicidology, about 2/3 of people who die by suicide are depressed at the time of their death. Serious depression can manifest in obvious sadness, but often it is rather expressed as a loss of pleasure or withdrawal from activities that had been enjoyable.
The signs of a clinical depression include a sad or depressed mood most of the day for at least two weeks; diminished appetite or excessive weight gain; insomnia, early awakening, or too much sleep; fatigue and lack of energy; slowed speech and movement; excessive guilt and feelings of worthlessness; difficulty concentrating or making decisions; and thoughts of death or suicide.
Individuals who show signs of depression should receive care, and be connected with a mental health provider for ongoing treatment. The good news is that treatment is effective 60-80% of the time.