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Suicide Risk Factors: Mental Illness, Age, Marital Status, et al.

When it comes to the act of suicide, there are many factors that play a role in determining the “risk” someone has of following through with the act. Various risk factors include: age, sex, culture, and whether the person has a mental illness. In 2011, there were roughly 40,000 suicides which made it the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

In any regard, whether you or someone you know is suicidal, it is important to understand the “risk factors” that are associated with the act of suicide. This article was written with the intention of helping educate people who do not know what makes certain people more prone to following through with suicide than others. For further reading and education, you may want to read about some common causes of suicide.

Regardless of the level of risk that you perceive someone to be at for following through with suicide, if someone says that they are suicidal, get them help. Talking about suicide is usually an indirect cry for some sort of help, whether the person wants it or not. It is always best to be empathetic and take threats of suicide very seriously.

Suicide Risk Factors: List

Below are various risk factors and details regarding each of these factors. Perhaps the factor that plays the biggest influence is that of mental illness or depression. The statistic to keep in mind is that 90% of people who commit suicide are suffering from some sort of mental illness. If the person is able to find relief for the illness via the form of medical intervention or therapy, this risk can be reduced.

Age Groups: Between 45 & 64

There is some dispute as to the exact age ranges that suicide rates tend to increase. However, in recent years, the highest suicide rates were between ages 45 and 64 years. Younger aged individuals have been having lower suicide rates than middle-aged and older adults. The second highest suicide rate seems to be among individuals who are 85 years and older.

These statistics are all based on collected data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). The annual suicide rate for those between 45 and 64 years was an average of 18.6 people per 100,000. In the 85+ age group, the rate was nearly 17 people per 100,000. Among those aged 15 to 24, the suicide rate is 11 per 100,000 people.

Alcohol and drugs

Individuals that have a history of alcohol abuse and/or substance abuse are at increased risk of suicide as well. People who commit suicide are often intoxicated or “high” during the attempt. During sober functioning it is much more difficult for people to carry through with the act. However, when they do something like drink alcohol, it can lower their inhibitions and essentially make them less fearful of following through with the act.

Emotional states

Many emotional states go hand-in-hand with someone making the decision to commit suicide. These usually include: anger, anxiety, agitation, and hopelessness (usually as a result of depression).

  • Anger – Individuals who are extremely angry or hostile can be at increased risk for suicide.
  • Anxiety – When a person deals with chronic anxiety and/or panic attacks, they may feel tormented by their mental and physical reactions. This increase in fear and general stress may lead someone to take the drastic action of suicide.
  • Agitation – This is defined as a state of nervous excitement. People who feel agitated are often likely to also experience anxiety and anger.
  • Hopelessness – This tends to increase risk because the person believes that nothing will ever change or improve in regards to their mental health or circumstances.


There are notable discrepancies between rates of suicide among certain ethnicities compared to others. It seems as though Caucasians and Native Americans have significantly higher suicide rates than African-Americans and Hispanics.

  • White Americans and Native Americans have the highest suicide rates
  • African-Americans have intermediate suicide rates
  • Hispanic Americans have the lowest suicide rates

Specifically, Native American males between the ages of 15 and 24 have a dramatically higher rate of suicide than any other group. It is thought that cultural differences, alcohol, and adapting to present-day Americanized society may have influenced the high suicide rate among Native Americans.

In 2011, the highest rate of suicides was White Americans at 14.5 followed by American Indians and Alaska Natives at 10.6 per 100,000.

Other data from 2011 shows that Asians and Pacific Islanders had a rate of 5.9, Blacks 5.3, while Hispanics were the lowest with 5.2 per 100,000.

Family history & life circumstances

A majority of studies demonstrate links between family history of suicide and increased suicide risk. In the following cases: first-degree relatives committing suicide, losing a parent during childhood, and/or having to deal with sexual abuse during childhood – suicide risk significantly increases. Other difficult life circumstances such as: being unemployed, feeling isolated from society, or having to deal with excessive psychosocial stress can lead people to consider suicide.

Many people face unpredictable, yet painful circumstances in their lives, which can make suicide seem like an enticing option to pursue. It has also been shown that factors such as: drop in socioeconomic status, facing health problems, and partner separation (e.g. divorce) can increase suicide risk.


Different areas tend to have higher rates of suicide than others. It appears that the West region of the United States has the highest rate, followed by the South, Midwest, and Northeast. This shows that you could be at increased risk based on your geographical location.

  • West: 13.6 per 100,000
  • South: 12.6 per 100,000
  • Midwest: 12.0 per 100,000
  • Northeast: 9.3 per 100,000

Note: These numbers are annual averages.

The states with higher than average suicide rates include:

  1. Wyoming
  2. Alaska
  3. Montana
  4. Nevada
  5. New Mexico
  6. Idaho.

States with the lowest suicide rates include:

  1. New York
  2. New Jersey
  3. Maryland
  4. D.C.

Gun access

Whether someone has access to a gun also can play a role in risk level. In the year 2010, suicide via firearms was the most common way to die by suicide. Guns accounted for slightly over 50% of all deaths by suicide that particular year. If someone has easy access to a firearm, it should obviously be taken away from them.

Marital Status: Being “single” is highest risk

Collected data reveals that marital status does play a role in determining suicide risk. Those who are unmarried, divorced, or widowed have the highest risk of suicide. More specifically, single, white males are the highest risk. It is thought that the loneliness and isolation associated with being “single” is what increases risk of suicide.

Humans are need constant social interaction and need to feel connected to others in order to thrive. Being single can lead to feelings of isolation, which in turn can lead to an array of other mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Based on evidence, being married acts as an effective buffer to suicide.

Mental illness

90% of all suicides can be traced to some sort of mental illness. This includes major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or personality disorders. When someone also is afflicted with anxiety and/or panic attacks, this can further increase risk. Illnesses such as schizophrenia and treatment-resistant depression that still lack promising and effective treatment options. Although plenty of drugs have been developed, there are some individuals that don’t respond well, while others simply cannot cope with the severe side effects.

  • Eating disorders: Eating disorders, particularly anorexia has a strong link to suicide. Those who struggle with anorexia tend to have a 40x greater risk in comparison to the general population. Lifetime risk of suicide among individuals with anorexia ranges between 18% and 27% – referring to all deaths related to the disorder.
  • Mood Disorders: Despite the fact that those with general mood disorders have a lifetime risk of only 1%, those who have been hospitalized for severe depression could have a risk of up to 13%. Individuals with major depression are 20x as likely to commit suicide than those without it. Additionally people with bipolar disorder are 15x as likely to die from suicide than others in the general population. In the event that depression is accompanied by a comorbid condition such as: anxiety, agitation, or insomnia – risk is further increased.
  • Psychosis: People experiencing psychotic symptoms such as delusions (i.e. false beliefs) and auditory hallucinations (particularly those that are commanding) are considered to increase a person’s risk of suicide.
  • Schizophrenia: Among those with schizophrenia, a meta-analysis has reported that roughly 5% of those with this illness will commit suicide. In most cases, the suicide is committed during the early phases (e.g. onset) of the disease. More specific risk factors for individuals with schizophrenia include: previous attempts of suicide, whether they have severe depression, being socially isolated, being male, and recent discharges from the hospital. It should also be noted that certain subtypes of this disease such as paranoid schizophrenia have higher suicide risk than others.
  • Personality disorders: Those who have been diagnosed with a personality disorder are at higher than average risk of suicide. In particular, the three most risky disorders based on research seem to be: borderline personality disorder (BPD), antisocial personality disorder (APD), and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Among individuals with personality disorders, increased risk is generally associated with younger age, drug abuse, and mood disorders. Any history of sexual abuse, reduction of psychological and psychiatric care, and recent hospital discharge can also elevate risk.
  • Antidepressants: Some research by Healy (2009) suggests that those who take antidepressants tend to commit suicide within 14 days of stopping their treatment (or withdrawing). This is likely due to the fact that people can experience a worsening of depressive symptoms and suicidal thinking upon withdrawal.

Sex: Male vs. Female

In nearly every major country the suicide rate is more common among men than women. The only exception to this is in China, where the suicide rate of women significantly exceeds that of men. In the United States, the suicide rate has been 4 to 4.5 times higher among men than women. In recent years, men have had an average annual suicide rate of 20.2 per 100,000 – while women were only at 5.4 per 100,000.

  • In percentages, nearly 80% of all suicides were male, while females accounted for slightly over 20%.
  • Men from ages 15 to 24 are between 5x and 6x as likely as women to engage in suicide.
  • Women are more likely to commit suicide by overdosing on drugs than men.
  • Transgender individuals are also at above average-risk for suicide.

Sexual orientation

Research shows that among those who are homosexual, there tends to be higher rates of suicide. Lesbian females tend to attempt suicide most often compared to gay and straight males. Although lesbians attempt suicide more often than gays, homosexual men are at the greatest risk to succeed with their attempt.

In present day society, LGBT tolerance has improved in recent years, but many of these individuals still feel shunned by society. Sexual orientation is not something people can choose, yet many individuals believe it is morally or religiously wrong, and treat these individuals with disrespect and outright abuse.

It is difficulties that the person faces with society, their families, friends, as well as with their partners that can lead to feelings of isolation. Being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender can cause non-tolerant individuals to ridicule them for not fitting in with societal norms. It’s unfortunate, but this can lead a person to be at increased suicide risk.

Suicidal ideation

This is the thoughts and ideas that a person holds in regards to the act of suicide. Many professionals attempt to assess the suicidal ideation of their clients by asking how often they think of suicide, whether they have specific plans, or any motivation for suicide.

Suicide plans: When assessing someone’s ideation, most professionals are instructed to ask whether the person has a plan. If the person does have a plan, it involves considering whether the person has the means to carry out the plan, as well as the lethality of the method the person plans to use. Many plans include: specific timing, settings, methods, and a set of actions to carry out the suicidal act. In regards to risk, the more detailed and specific a particular plan, the greater the level of risk that the person is for carrying it out.

Suicide notes: In the event that a person writes a suicide note, this suggests even greater intent to follow through with the act. A note generally indicates some sort of premeditation. Usually when someone finds a note, they explore the timing of it as well as discuss the meaning of the writing with the person responsible for writing it.

Motives: What motivation does someone have to die? Some people are motivated to die by recent stressful events, while others look to suicide as the only way to escape negative emotions. Some are motivated by philosophical beliefs and religion. Those who have serious motives to follow through with the act are at high risk.  Although many suicides are motivated by a wish to escape pain, another less common motivation is to get “revenge” on others that wronged the person. Others are motivated by suicide as a way to end the significant suffering caused by a terminal illness. In cases of terminal illness, suicide and assisted-suicide sometimes allows people to die under their own control rather than have their family watch them slowly suffer and atrophy in pain.

Reasons to live: Can the person come up with some reasons as to why they should stay alive? Usually coming up with reasons to stay alive involves discussing plans for the future and certain areas of life the person enjoys. The less reasons a person has for staying alive, the increased the risk of suicide.

Past suicide attempts: People who commit suicide tend to have a history riddled with self-harm and suicide attempts. Someone who frequently engages in acts of self-harm or mutilation has a significantly increased risk for suicide. The more lethal the past attempt, planning, and efforts made to hide the attempt, the increased risk the person is at for a future attempt.

Note: It is important to note that there are individuals who carry through with suicide the very first time they have suicidal thoughts. With that said, those who have attempted suicide in the past are at increased risk.

Suicide: How it affects others

  • Economy: In the United States alone, the annual economic impact of suicide is over $30 billion. This is calculated based on the loss of wages as well as productivity. Suicide attempts also result in frequent hospital visits to help save the person that tried to kill themselves. Each year it is thought that nearly $3 billion is spent on medical care as a result of suicide attempts. This shows that suicide has a huge impact on the economy and is mostly a result of most people who follow through with the act being of working age.
  • Friends & Family: Suicide can ruin the emotional life of the victim’s survivors and lead to mental health problems among close friends and family members. The devastation and grief resulting from the loss of another human being is usually very significant. It can take a long time before relatives and friends experience some sort of healing after the death of the person that they loved. This impact is beyond words, stats, or financial figures – it is the loss of a unique, creative, fellow human being.

What to do if someone you know is suicidal

If someone you know is suicidal, the best thing you can do is get them some sort of help. If they are serious about going through with the act, do not hesitate to call the police and take action to resolve the problem. Always be empathetic to someone who is feeling suicidal, and never make fun or scrutinize them for feeling the way that they do. It is important to never assume that the person is going to “get over” feeling this way.

At the end of the day, you really don’t know whether someone is going to take drastic action to harm themselves. In 2012 alone, nearly 500,000 people ended up in the hospital for injuries as related to self-harm. Additionally many suicide attempts go unreported and people don’t go to the hospital to deal with self-inflicted injuries. If you yourself are suicidal, seek professional help and consider reading the article that I wrote called “I Want To Die, Kill Myself.”

I wrote it with the intention of helping people out of their suicidal feelings and giving some general ideas of what to do when you feel hopeless. Although suicide prevention is never going to be perfect, doing what you can to help someone that is suicidal may be just what they need to turn their life around. Many times people just want to know that someone cares, so let them know that you care.

Hopefully by recognizing some of the risk factors in this article, you are better educated on the topic of suicide and remember what puts people at increased risk.

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