Warning Signs, Risk Factors and Protective Factors for Suicide Prevention

It is easy to confuse risk factors with warning signs of suicide, but it is important to recognize that these key terms are different. Risk factors are not warning signs. Warning signs indicate that someone is at-risk of suicide and may be in need of immediate interventions, whereas risk factors indicate someone is at heightened risk for suicide, but indicate little to no immediate risk.

Understanding warning signs helps individuals experiencing thoughts of suicide and others to take a proactive approach to seeking care. Talking about warning signs helps people know what actions they can take right now to help themselves or someone at risk for suicide. Talking about risk factors helps educate people about what might need to change within an individual or a specific population in order to decrease suicide risk over time.

To help clarify risk factors versus protective factors, we’ve provided an example: Risk and protective factors for heart disease and warning signs of a heart attack.

Risk factors for heart disease (tobacco use, obesity, and high cholesterol) does not mean that someone is having a heart attack, rather he or she is at an increased risk for suffering a heart attack in the future.

On the other hand, warning signs of a heart attack (chest pain and shortness of breath, numbness in the extremities, ) indicate that someone may be having a heart attack right now and in need of immediate intervention.

Applying this principle to risk factors for suicide (prior attempts, mood disorders, and substance abuse) indicate that someone is at an increased risk for suicide. However, warning signs (threatening suicide, seeking means for suicide, having a plan, and dramatic mood changes) indicate that someone may need immediate intervention and support.

Major Risk and Protective Factors for Suicide?

There are many risk and protective factors identified by researchers and medical professionals. Below are listed some of the most common major risk and protective factors for suicide.

Major risk factors for suicide include the following:

  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • Family history of suicide attempt(s)
  • Substance/drug use
  • Mood disorders
  • Access to lethal means
  • Having no reason live

Despite the wide range of risk factors, there are also factors that can be protective against suicide. People who have strong social support including family members, friends, or other connections with other people, have a lower risk of suicide. For men and women, having children at home, and for women, a current pregnancy, also are protective factors. Religious and spiritual practices and beliefs may also reduce suicide risks. Lastly, maintaining healthy lifestyle habits, including positive coping strategies, adequate sleep, good diet and exercise, can both maintain and improve physical and mental health, including suicide risk.

Protective factors include:

  • Effective mental health care plan and treatment
  • Support and connection to individuals, family, and community
  • Coping and Problem-solving skills

Whether you are someone suffering from mental health issues or you know someone in need of help, it is important to remember that risk and protective factors for suicide prevention vary between individuals, populations, and settings. Suicide prevention efforts should begin with a strategic planning process that, among other goals, identifies and targets specific risk and protective factors for intervention.


American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (2017). Risk Factors and Warning Signs. Retrieved from: https://afsp.org/about-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs/

eMedicine Health. (2017). Retrieved from: http://www.emedicinehealth.com/suicidal_thoughts/page4_em.htm#protective_factors_against_suicide

Rudd, M. D., Berman, A. L., Joiner, T. E., Jr., Nock, M. K., Silverman, M. M., Mandrusiak, M., et al. (2006). Warning signs for suicide: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Suicide and Life- Threatening Behavior, 36(3), 255-262.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center, & Rodgers, P. (2011). Understanding risk and protective factors for suicide: A primer for preventing suicide. Newton, MA: Education Development Center, Inc.

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