Most health experts agree that the key to determining whether an individual is in distress, depressed, in crisis or at-risk for suicide (and, if so, to what degree) is by identifying his or her warning signs, risk and protective factors associated with suicide. It is important to take all warning signs seriously and engage appropriate help and support.

Warning Signs

Warning signs are indications that someone may be at imminent risk for suicide (immediately or in the near future). The more warning signs someone shows, the greater the risk of suicide. Some of the affects, behaviors and actions that are often related to an individual experiencing suicide ideation are:

  • Extreme mood swings or changes in personality
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits (such as sleeping too little or all the time)
  • A heightened fixation with death or violence
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness or no reason to live
  • Engaging in self-destructive or risky behavior
  • Withdrawl from loved ones, friends and community
  • Announcing a plan to kill one’s self
  • Talking about or writing about hurting one’s self, wanting to die or kill one’s self
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Obtaining a weapon or some other means of hurting one’s self
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Telling people he or she is ‘going away’
  • Loss of interest in things one used to care about
  • Being a victim of bullying, sexual abuse, violence
  • For youth, a sudden worsening of school performance
  • For youth, indications that the teen is in some form of an abusive relationship
  • Saying things like:
“I wish I were dead.”
“I’m going to end it all.”
“You will be better off without me.
What’s the point of living?
Soon you won’t have to worry about me.
Who cares if I’m dead, anyway?

Risk Factors

Risk factors are indications that someone is at higher risk for suicide. Some of the issues tied to a person’s background, history, environment and/or circumstances that increase the risk potential or likelihood of suicidal behavior are:

  • Prior suicide attempt(s)
  • Previous self-destructive behavior
  • History of mood disorder(s)
  • History of alcohol and/or other form of substance abuse
  • Family history of suicide and/or psychiatric disorder(s)
  • Loss of parent or loved one through any means
  • History of trauma, abuse, violence or neglect
  • Easy access to lethal means (especially guns)
  • Social isolation and/or alienation
  • Barriers to accessing health care and treatment
  • Problems tied to sexual identity and relationships
  • Problems tied to other personal relationships
  • Recent or ongoing impulsive and aggressive tendencies and/or acts
  • Certain cultural or religious beliefs tied to suicide

Protective Factors

Protective factors are characteristics that reduce the likelihood that someone will attempt suicide. Some of the key behaviors, environments and relationships that reduce the likelihood of suicidal behavior and enhance resilience are:

  • Supportive and caring family and friends
  • Connectedness to community, school, family, friends
  • Learned skills (such as problem-solving, conflict resolution, anger management, impulse control, etc.)
  • Access to appropriate medical and mental health care
  • Access to immediate and ongoing support and care
  • Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide
  • Restricted access to lethal means

Additional Resources

Risk and Protective Factors for Suicide
Discusses the interactive relationship between risk and protective factors. Separates risk factors into biopsychosocial, environmental and social-cultural factors to provide a cross-section of perspectives in assessing risk. Suicide Prevention Resource Center

Symptoms of Major Depression Across the Lifespan
Easy-to-understand lists of risk factors and warning signs in infants, children, adolescents, adults and the elderly for depression and suicide. Suicide Awareness Voices of Education

Warning Signs, Risk and Protective Factors for Youth
Go to pages 32-42 and 215-223 for a comprehensive listing of warning signs, risk factors and protective factors for youth. Created specific to youth suicide prevention, this publication is helpful to anyone who cares for adolescents, from parents to healthcare providers. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (free)

Examining Myths about Suicide
To identify and begin addressing some of the most common myths and misconceptions people have about suicide, click here.