Suicide Risk Factors

Higher Risk Groups

Youth suicide is a serious, national health problem affecting our young people today. Although there is really no stereotypical “suicidal type” young person, the statistics on youth suicide indicate that some groups are at a higher risk for suicide than others. Suicide knows no boundaries; it occurs across all age, economic, social, and ethnic boundaries.

  • Females attempt suicide more than three times as often as males; however, males die by suicide more than four times as often as the females.
  • In the age 10 to 24 group, 81% of the suicide deaths were males and 19% were females.

Cultural variations also exist in suicide rates.

  • Native American/Alaskan Native youth have the highest rates of suicide-related fatalities.
  • Caucasian youth have the second highest rates of suicides.
  • African-American youth have the third highest rates of suicides.
  • Hispanic youth are more likely to report having attempted suicide than their black and white, non-Hispanic peers.

LGBTQ youth are often considered to be at higher risk for suicide than their heterosexual peers.

  • 81.9% of LGBT students have experienced harassment at school because of their sexual orientation
  • 63.5% have felt unsafe at school
  • 60.4% of LGBT students never reported an incident of harassment or assault to school personnel.

NOTE: This is not a complete listing but rather a general overview of at-risk groups.

Risk Factors

Suicide does not typically have a sudden onset. There are a number of stressors that can contribute to a youth’s anxiety and unhappiness, increasing the possibility of a suicide attempt. A number of them are described below.

Depression, mental illness and substance abuse

One of the most telling risk factors for youth is mental illness. Mental or addictive disorders are associated with 90% of suicides. One in ten youth suffer from mental illness serious enough to be impaired, yet fewer than 20 percent receive treatment. In fact, 60% of those who complete suicide suffer from depression. Alcohol and drug use, which clouds judgment, lowers inhibitions, and worsens depression, are associated with 50-67% of suicides.

Aggression and fighting

Recent research has identified a connection between interpersonal violence and suicide. Suicide is associated with fighting for both males and females, across all ethnic groups, and for youth living in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Home environment

Within the home, a lack of cohesion, high levels of violence and conflict, a lack of parental support and alienation from and within the family.

Community environment

Youth with high levels of exposure to community violence are at serious risk for self-destructive behavior. This can occur when a youth models his or her own behavior after what is experienced in the community. Additionally, more youth are growing up without making meaningful connections with adults, and therefore are not getting the guidance they need to help them cope with their daily lives.

 School environment

Youth who are struggling with classes, perceive their teachers as not understanding them or caring about them, or have poor relationships with their peers have increased vulnerability.

 Previous attempts

Youth who have attempted suicide are at risk to do it again. In fact, they are eight times more likely than youth who have never attempted suicide to make another suicide attempt.

 Cultural factors

Changes in gender roles and expectations, issues of conformity and assimilation, and feelings of isolation and victimization can all increase the stress levels and vulnerability of individuals. Additionally, in some cultures (particularly Asian and Pacific cultures), suicide may be seen as a rational response to shame.

Family history/stresses

A history of mental illness and suicide among immediate family members place youth at greater risk for suicide. Exacerbating these circumstances are changes in family structure such as death, divorce, remarriage, moving to a new city, and financial instability.

Self-mutilation

Self-mutilation or self-harm behaviors include head banging, cutting, burning, biting, erasing, and digging at wounds. These behaviors are becoming increasingly common among youth, especially female youth. While self-injury typically signals the occurrence of broader problems, the reason for this behavior can vary from peer group pressure to severe emotional disturbance. Although help should be sought for any individual who is causing self-harm, an appropriate response is crucial. Because most self-mutilation behaviors are not suicide attempts, it is important to be cautious when reaching out to the youth and not to make assumptions.

Situational crises

Approximately 40% of youth suicides are associated with an identifiable precipitating event, such as the death of a loved one, loss of a valued relationship, parental divorce, or sexual abuse. Typically, these events coincide with other risk factors.

Elevated Risk Factors

Although there is no such thing as a suicidal type of young person, the statistics on youth suicide do suggest that there are certain behaviors or characteristics that can alert you to a possible elevated risk of suicidal thought. Some of the most common elevated risk factors are listed below:

Perfectionist Personalities

The pressure, often on oneself or from others, to be perfect may causes feelings of inadequacies. These young people are often the high achievers and/or school leaders that overextend themselves to exhaustion. These youth set high expectations for themselves and if those expectations become impossible to achieve, depression and eventual thoughts of suicide may occur.

LGBTQ

These young people are considered to be at high risk for suicidal behavior because they are the targets of a great deal of victimization. They report not feeling safe in their schools, feeling confused about their sexuality and suffering some form of verbal or physical abuse.

 Learning Disabled

Youth who constantly struggle to understand concepts that are easily understood by others can become depressed and feel defeated. Their struggle to perform in school is present for them daily. Youth with learning disabilities had twice the risk of emotional distress, and females were at twice the risk of attempting suicide and for violence involvement than their peers.

Loners

These young people appear to have no social or emotional support systems.

Low Self-Esteem

Feelings of worthless, shame, overwhelming guilt, self-hatred, “everyone would be better off without me.”

Depressed Youth

90% of those who complete suicide suffer from undiagnosed and treatable mental health issues.

 Students in Trouble

A recent literature review of youth corrections shows that detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being, their education, and their employment. One psychologist found that for one-third of incarcerated youth diagnosed with depression, the onset of the depression occurred after they began their incarceration, and another suggests that poor mental health, and the conditions of confinement together conspire to make it more likely that incarcerated teens will engage in suicide and self-harm.

 Abused, Molested or Neglected

Abused youth in a study by the AMA showed significantly greater risk factors for youth suicide, including family disintegration, diagnoses of depression, disruptive behavior disorders and substance abuse and dependence.

Abusers of Drugs and Alcohol

Alcohol and drug use clouds judgment, lowers inhibitions and worsens depression, and in turn can heighten the risk considerably.