Suicide is preventable. Recognizing the common warning signs and risk factors, and learning how to reach out to those in need, are some of the most vital elements for suicide prevention.
Risk factors are conditions and characteristics in a person’s life that are associated with an increased risk or likelihood of suicide. Warning signs are indicators that a person may currently be thinking about suicide.
If someone presents risk factors and warning signs, it is important to reach out and ask about suicide.
Risk factors are elements in a person’s life that can put a strain on their ability to cope with stress and/or trauma, and are therefore associated with increased suicide risk.
In essence, risk factors can undermine an individual’s resilience. This refers to the ability to ‘bounce back’ from difficult situations and to adapt in times of hardship and challenge.
It is important to understand that the presence of one or more risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean the person is thinking about suicide. It does mean, however, that their risk is increased.
Common risk factors include:
- History of mental illness
- History of substance abuse
- History of trauma
- Family history of suicide
- Job or relationship loss
- Lack of social support
- Barriers to accessing health care
- Surviving a suicide loss
- Having had thoughts of suicide, or attempted suicide in the past
- Exposure to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide
- Access to lethal methods of suicide during a time of increased risk
Protective factors help people manage and cope with various stressors and life events, thereby reducing the likelihood of suicide.
These factors do not guarantee that an individual will not be affected by thoughts of suicide, especially if there are other risk factors present. Protective factors do, however, lower the risk.
Common protective factors include:
- Good communication skills
- Support from peers and close social networks
- Sense of humor
- Ability to manage, handle, and reduce stress
- A sense of connectedness with others (e.g., within school, community, a group of friends, and/or family)
- Cultural and religious beliefs that promote healthy living
- Problem solving and conflict resolution skills
- Feeling a sense of purpose in life and general life satisfaction
- Supportive and effective medical and mental health care
- Policies in workplaces and schools that support good mental health
For a more detailed list of risk and protective factors, please visit the Canadian Association For Suicide Prevention website.
Few suicides occur without warning. Most people who die by suicide indicate to others in some way that they were at risk. We refer to these ways of telling as ‘warning signs’.
Use the IS PATH WARM acronym to identify the common warning signs for suicide. If someone is demonstrating any of these signs, they may be at risk:
- Ideation – Talking about death or suicide, or making direct statements such as ‘’I wish I was dead” or “I am going to kill myself”
- Substance Abuse – Increased use of drugs or alcohol
- Purposelessness – Feeling no purpose in life
- Anxiety – Experiencing excessive anxiety
- Trapped – Indicating feeling trapped in a particular situation or in life in general
- Hopelessness / Helplessness – Indicating that nothing will change or get better
- Withdrawal – Wanting to be alone or avoiding social contact
- Anger – Constant irritableness or sudden outbursts of anger/aggression
- Recklessness – Engaging in risky or self-destructive behaviour
- Mood Changes – Sudden and dramatic fluctuations in mood
Other common warning signs and behaviours to consider are:
- Giving away valued possessions (e.g., a favorite book or beloved pet)
- Change in normal routine, including eating and sleeping patterns
- Putting affairs in order suddenly (e.g., finalizing insurance or dealing with debt)
- Saying goodbye to people as though it were a final goodbye
- Loss of interest in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed
- Lack of self-care
- Previous suicide attempt(s)
If you notice one or more of these risk factors and/or warning signs, reach out and ask that person about suicide. If you are uncomfortable asking this question, you can connect them with someone who can.
Your suspicion about suicide does not need to be more than a feeling or a worry. We know that it is better to ask directly about suicide rather than not say anything at all.
For more information, please see What to Do if Someone is in Crisis. To connect with the Nova Scotia Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team (NS MHMCT), please call 902- 429-8167 or 1-888-429-8167 (Toll Free).
Nova Scotia Strategic Framework To Address Suicide. Provincial Strategic Framework Development Committee.