Step 3: Identify Key Risk and Protective Factors
In Step 1 and Step 2 of the strategic planning process, you used data and other information to describe suicide and its context in your community and to identify a set of long-term goals.
In Step 3, you will focus on identifying the risk and protective factors that can help you reduce the suicidal behavior identified in your long-term goals. An effective way to address suicidal thoughts and behaviors is by working with underlying risk and protective factors—the things that put people at risk of suicide or protect them from suicide.
For more comprehensive information about Step 3, visit SPRC’s online course A Strategic Planning Approach to Suicide Prevention.
Risk factors are personal or environmental characteristics that are associated with an increase in a health-related condition, such as suicidal behavior. If you reduce risk factors for suicide, individuals are less likely to have suicidal thoughts, attempt suicide, or die by suicide. Risk factors can include things like:
- Prior suicide attempt(s)
- Mental disorders, particularly depression and other mood disorders
- Misuse and abuse of alcohol or other drugs
- Access to lethal means (e.g., firearms, medications)
- Knowing someone who died by suicide, particularly a family member
- Social isolation
- Chronic disease and disability
- Lack of access to behavioral health care
Protective factors are personal or environmental characteristics that help protect people from suicidal behavior. If you increase protective factors for suicide, individuals are less likely to have suicidal thoughts, attempt suicide, or die by suicide. Protective factors for suicide can include:
- Effective behavioral health care
- Connectedness to individuals, family, community, and social institutions
- Life skills (e.g., problem-solving and coping skills, ability to adapt to change)
- Self-esteem and a sense of purpose or meaning in life
- Cultural, religious, or personal beliefs that discourage suicide
No single risk or protective factor can fully predict or explain suicide risk.
Risk and protective factors have complicated relationships with suicide and with each other. That’s why it is important to engage in a comprehensive approach to prevention. When we target multiple risk and protective factors, we are more likely to achieve our long-term goals. No single risk or protective factor can fully predict or explain suicide risk.
When identifying the risk and protective factors related to the suicide issues in your community and the goals you have selected, keep these points in mind:
Not All Risk and Protective Factors Are Equal
Some risk factors have been shown to significantly increase risk, whereas other risk factors do not have strong or well-demonstrated relationships to risk. If you come across a list of risk and protective factors on a website or elsewhere, check the research to find out which ones have well-established links to suicidal behavior.
Multiple Risk Factors Are Usually Involved
No single risk or protective factor can fully predict or explain suicide. High risk for suicide, whether in individuals or communities, usually involves multiple risk factors. Try to address groups of risk and protective factors that relate to the suicide issue in your community and the goal you have selected.
Individual Variation Occurs Among Risk and Protective Factors
The importance of particular risk and protective factors varies among individuals and communities. Context matters. You will want to understand the impact of the risk and protective factors in the specific individuals or communities you are working with.
Immediate Stressors Matter Too
Although risk factors generally contribute to long-term risk, immediate stressors or painful life experiences may create the final impetus for a suicidal act. Immediate stressors may include relationship problems or break-ups, financial hardships, legal difficulties, public humiliation or shame, a worsening medical prognosis, and other stressful events.