Risks & Protective Factors
Suicide and suicidal behaviours (including suicide attempts, plans and thoughts) among adolescents are influenced by multiple, interacting risk and protective factors.
Risk factors are those factors and conditions that are associated with an elevated risk for suicide and suicidal behaviour. Recent reviews of research confirm that there are a number of factors that have been linked to suicide and suicidal behaviours among youth. These include:
- Mental health disorders, particularly mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, eating disorders and disruptive disorders. Co-occurring disorders (more than one disorder and/or in combination with a substance use disorder) are also very common among suicidal youth.
- Previous suicidal behaviour, including prior suicide attempts and behavioural rehearsal.
- Hopelessness, aggression, recklessness and impulsivity.
- Family factors, including high levels of parent-child conflict, parental mental illness and a family history of suicidal behaviour can elevate the risk for suicide among youth.
- A history of childhood physical and/or sexual abuse.
- Stressful life events, especially in combination with existing vulnerabilities. These commonly include: interpersonal conflict, rejection, failure, humiliation, and loss.
- Exposure to a peer suicide is also a potential risk factor among some youth with pre-existing vulnerabilities.
- Sensationalized media reports about suicide and having access to the means for suicide are additional risk factors for youth suicide.
- Older adolescents, males and Aboriginal youth are statistically more likely to die by suicide than females, children or younger adolescents.
Protective factors refer to those factors and experiences that appear to reduce risks for suicide and help protect youth against a range of social problems. These include:
- Strong individual coping and problem-solving skills
- Experience with success and feelings of effectiveness
- Strong sense of belonging and connection
- Interpersonal competence
- Warm, supportive family relationships
- Support and acceptance
- Success at school
- Strong cultural identity
- Community self-determination
Table 2 summarizes the risk and protective factors for suicide among youth.
Suicide rates tend to increase with age. This is due in part to the fact that risk factors for suicide, including, major depressive disorders, increase during adolescence. There is also a high level of co-morbidity, especially mood, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders observed among adolescents who die by suicide. Certain social stressors exacerbate suicide risk when they co-occur with other vulnerabilities and these stressors (e.g. romantic relationships, educational challenges and pressures) tend to increase during adolescence.
Though statistically rare, suicide does occur among pre-pubertal children. It is important not to underestimate children’s understandings of the meaning of suicide, not to discount the possibility that children do engage in suicidal behaviour. Other issues to consider when thinking about suicide risk among children include:
- By age nine, children usually have a thorough understanding of suicide
- The younger the child, the less complex and more immediately available the method
- Suicide among children is often associated with parent-child conflict