Risk factors for suicide

Risk factors are pretty much exactly what they sound like – issues in a young person’s life that increase the likelihood (risk) of them acting on suicidal thoughts. While warning signs are more immediate such as sudden changes in behaviour, risk factors are often longer-term challenges that a young person may deal with over a period of time. The more challenges a young person has in their life, the greater their risk of suicide.

One risk factor that people are most commonly aware of is depression.

Experiencing risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean a young person will think about or attempt to take their own life. We all have different ways of coping with challenges, and strong family relationships and connections also help to balance out difficult or negative life issues.

The main thing is to be aware of any challenges that your young person is facing, keep an eye out for changes in their behaviour, and check in with them if you’re concerned.

Risk factors
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • History of substance abuse
  • History of mental health conditions – depression, anxiety, bipolar, PTSD
  • Relationship problems – conflict with parents and/or romantic partners
  • Legal or disciplinary problems
  • Access to harmful means such as medication or weapons
  • Recent death of a family member or a close friend
  • Ongoing exposure to bullying behaviour such as cyberbullying
  • Losing a friend or family member to suicide
  • Physical illness or disability
Protective factors

Risk factors can be balanced out to a certain extent by the presence of protective factors. There are a range of protective factors that can help to reduce suicidal behaviour, including:

  • strong, positive relationships with parents and guardians – feeling secure and supported
  • connections to other non-parental adults
  • closeness to caring friends
  • academic achievement
  • school safety
  • feeling a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves – community, culture, religion, sports team
  • neighbourhood safety
  • awareness of and access to local health services overall resilience.

LGBT and gender diverse young people

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people, and young people who don’t identify with or ‘fit in’ to a traditional gender, are more at risk of acting on suicidal thoughts than others.

It’s important to understand that it is not young people’s sexuality or gender identity that leads to suicide; it is experiences of discrimination, prejudice, isolation and family rejection because of their sexuality that increase the risk of suicide. LGBT young people who reported high levels of family rejection during adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide.1

As well as this, research has shown that 81 per cent of gender diverse young people in Australia who had experienced abuse and/or discrimination due to not identifying with a specific gender had thought about suicide and 37 per cent had attempted suicide.2

Family acceptance has been shown to protect against depression, suicidal behaviour, and alcohol and substance abuse, and to promote self-esteem, social support, and overall health.3

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people

Recent studies have shown that the suicide rate among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people is 2.6 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians, with the majority of suicide deaths occurring before the age of 35 years.4

Racial discrimination is hugely damaging to mental health. In a recent Victorian study by the Lowitja Institute, an overwhelming majority (97 per cent) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people surveyed had experienced racism multiple times.5

By restricting people's participation in public life and their access to health and housing services, racial discrimination directly contributes to inequality in health and wellbeing outcomes.

Get immediate support

If you’re concerned that your young person might attempt suicide, it’s important to act immediately. Call your doctor, mental health crisis service, or go with them to your local hospital’s emergency department. In an emergency, call triple zero (000).

1. Ryan, C. (2009). Supportive families, healthy children: Helping families with lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender children. San Francisco, CA: Family Acceptance Project, Marian Wright Edelman Institute, San Francisco State University.

2. Elizabeth Smith, Tiffany Jones, Roz Ward, Jennifer Dixon, Anne Mitchell, Lynne Hillier, 2014, From blues to rainbows: the mental health and well-being of gender diverse and transgender young people in Australia, Australian Research Centre in Sex Health and Society, viewed 24 September 2014

3. Ryan, C. (2010). Engaging families to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth: The Family Acceptance Project. The Prevention Researcher, 17(4), 11-13.

4. Australian Government Department of Health (2013). National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention strategy. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health.

5. Ferdinand, A., Paradies, Y. & Kelaher, M. 2012, Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian Aboriginal Communities: The Localities Embracing and Accepting Diversity (LEAD) Experiences of Racism Survey, The Lowitja Institute, Melbourne.

6. Resnick, M.D. (2000). Protective Factors, Resiliency, and Healthy Youth Development. Adolescent Medicine: State of the Art Reviews, 11 (1), 157-164.

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