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Suicide Risk Factors

Suicide has been called the “permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Although there is evidence to suggest that some predisposing conditions are temporary, there is even greater evidence that this permanent act is associated with a constellation of longer-term factors that increase the likelihood that individuals take their own lives.

Like other risky and life threatening behaviors, suicides are associated with a variety of risk factors as well as protective factors that can be influenced by a variety of interventions.

Examples of Identified Risk Factors

The most common location of firearm suicides by youth is in their homes, and there is a link between the accessibility and availability of firearms in the home and the risk for youth suicide. If a child is talking about death or dying, one should remove all other means from the home, such as medications.
Suicide can be aided in vulnerable teens by exposure to real or fictional accounts of suicide, including media coverage of suicide (such as intensive reporting of the suicide of a celebrity) or the fictional representation of a suicide in a popular movie or TV show. In addition, there is evidence of suicide clusters: local incidents of suicide that have a contagious influence. Suicide clusters nearly always involve previously disturbed young people who knew about each other's death but rarely knew the other victims personally.
A high proportion of suicides and attempters have had a close family member (sibling, parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent) who attempted or completed suicide. Many of the mental illnesses which contribute to suicide risk appear to have a genetic component.
If a youth has attempted suicide in the past, he or she is much more likely than other youths to attempt suicide again in the future. If a male teen has attempted suicide in the past, he is more than thirty times more likely to complete suicide, while a female with a past attempt has about three times the risk. About a third of teenage suicide victims have made a previous suicide attempt. While it was once thought that teen suicide was unpredictable, we now know we can identify risk factors in advance and intervene.
It has been widely reported in the media that gay and lesbian youth are at higher risk to complete suicide than other youth and that a significant percent of all attempted or completed youth suicides are related to issues of sexual identity. However, there are no national statistics for suicide completion rates among gay, lesbian or bisexual persons, and in the few studies examining risk factors for suicide completion where an attempt was made to assess sexual orientation, the risk for gay or lesbian persons did not appear any greater than among heterosexuals, once mental and substance abuse disorders were taken into account. With regard to suicide attempts, several state and national studies have reported that high school students who report engaging in homosexual or bisexual activity have higher rates of suicide thoughts and attempts compared to youth with heterosexual experience.

Experts have not been in complete agreement about the best way to measure reports of adolescent suicide attempts or sexual orientation, however, so the data are subject to question. Clearly, further research is needed in this area.