Suicide Risk Factors, Part III

It’s been awhile since I started my holiday and post-holiday look at suicide risk factors. In previous posts I focused on Demographic and Ethnic Factors related to death by suicide and then on the broad category of Mental Disorders and Psychiatric Treatment. This post focuses on Personal and Social Factors that are linked to suicide.

Not to worry, soon I’ll be moving beyond this tragic but important topic.

The following is mostly an excerpt from our Clinical Interviewing text.

Social and Personal Factors

There are a number of social and personal factors linked to increased suicide risk. Many of these factors have been reviewed and integrated into Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal theory of suicide (Joiner & Silva, 2012; Van Orden et al., 2010).

Social Isolation/Loneliness
In a review of the literature, 34 research studies were identified that include support for social isolation as a suicide risk factor (Van Orden et al., 2010). These findings provide support for Joiner’s (Joiner & Silva, 2012) attachment-informed interpersonal theory of suicide. Van Orden et al (2008) described the two primary dimensions of Joiner’s interpersonal theory:

The theory proposes that the needs to belong and to contribute to the welfare of close others are so fundamental that the thwarting of these needs (i.e., thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness) is a proximal cause of suicidal desire. (Van Orden et al., 2008, p. 72)

Interpersonal theory explains why a number of social factors, such as unemployment, social isolation, reduced productivity, and physical incapacitation are associated with increased suicide risk. Specifically, research indicates that divorced, widowed, and separated people are in a higher suicide-risk category and that single, never-married individuals have a suicide rate nearly double the rate of married individuals (Van Orden et al., 2010). Based on interpersonal theory, an underlying reason that these factors are linked to suicidality is because they involve thwarted belongingness and a self-perception of being a burden to family and friends, rather than contributing in a positive way to the lives of others.

In a fairly recent study, the suicide notes of 98 active duty U.S. Air Force (USAF) members were analyzed. Using Joiner’s interpersonal theory, results indicated strong themes of hopelessness, perceived burdensomeness, and thwarted belongingness. Overall, interpersonal risk factors were communicated more often than intrapsychic risk factors. (Cox et al., 2011).

Physical Illness

Many decades of research have established the link between physical illness and suicide. Specific illnesses that confer suicide risk include brain cancer, chronic pain, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, hemodialysis, and HIV-AIDS (e.g., (Lin, Wu, & Lee, 2009; Martiny, de Oliveira e Silva, Neto, & Nardi, 2011). Overall, although physical illness is a major predictor, several social factors appear to mediate the relationship between illness and death by suicide. In particular, Joiner’s concept of becoming a social burden seems a likely contributor to suicidal behavior, regardless of specific diagnosis (Van Orden et al., 2010). Similar to previously hospitalized psychiatric patients, medical patients also exhibit higher suicidal behavior shortly after hospital discharge (McKenzie & Wurr, 2001).

Previous Attempts

Over 27 separate studies have indicated that suicide risk is higher for people who have previously attempted (Beghi & Rosenbaum, 2010). Van Orden et al. (2010) refer to previous attempts as “. . . one of the most reliable and potent predictors of future suicidal ideation, attempts, and death by suicide across the lifespan” (p. 577).

As one example, in a 15-year prospective British study of deliberate self-harm, repeated self-harm was a strong predictor of eventual suicide, especially in young women (Zahl & Hawton, 2004). By the study’s end, 4.7% of women who had repeatedly engaged in deliberate self-harm committed suicide as compared to 1.9% in the single episode group. In this study, deliberate self-harm was defined as intentionally poisoning or self-injuring that resulted in a hospital visit. The study concluded that repeated deliberate self-harm increases suicide risk in males and females, but is a particularly salient predictor in young females. This is the case despite the fact that some clients use cutting, burning, or other forms of self-harm to aid in emotional regulation. Overall the research suggests that self-harm that rises to the level of hospitalization is likely beyond that which enhances self-regulation and instead constitutes practicing or successive approximation toward suicide.


Individuals who have suffered any form of recent, significant personal loss should be considered higher suicide risk (Hall, Platt, & Hall, 1999). However, in particular, unemployment is a life situation that repeatedly has been linked to suicide attempts and death by suicide. Joiner’s (2005) interpersonal theory of suicide posits that unemployment confers suicide risk at least partly because of individuals experiencing an increased sense of themselves as a burden on others. Other losses that can increase risk include (a) status loss, (b) loss of a loved one, (c) loss of physical health or mobility, (d) loss of a pet loss, and (e) loss of face through recent shameful events (Beghi & Rosenbaum, 2010; Packman, Marlitt, Bongar, & Pennuto, 2004).

Sexual Orientation

Over the years the data have been mixed regarding whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender individuals constitute a high suicide risk group. More recently, a 2011 publication in the Journal of Homosexuality reported there is no clear and convincing evidence that GLBT individuals die by suicide at a rate greater than the general population (Haas et al., 2011).
Although this is good news, the data also show that GLB populations have significantly higher suicide attempt rates. Haas et al (2011) wrote:

Since the early 1990s, population-based surveys of U.S. adolescents that have included questions about sexual orientation have consistently found rates of reported suicide attempts to be two to seven times higher in high school students who identify as LGB, compared to those who describe themselves as heterosexual. (p. 17)

Overall, it’s likely that transgender people and youth questioning their sexuality may be at increased risk for suicide attempts or death by suicide. Additionally, GLBT youth who have experienced homosexual-related verbal abuse and parental rejection for their behaviors related to gender and sexuality are more likely to engage in suicidal behaviors (D’augelli et al., 2005).

In conclusion, as you can probably see from this and the two previous posts, there are many complex and potentially interacting factors associated with increased suicide risk, but no great predictors. This is unfortunate for those of us who would like to use prediction methods to prevent and reduce suicide rates. But, at the same time, the fact that many people who experience great suffering in their lives still choose life, is a testament to human strength and resiliency.

And, speaking of resiliency, maybe I’ll be focusing on an exciting and upbeat topic like that next time. Until then, I wish you all the best in your efforts to help your clients through difficult times in their lives. Your work may be more important than you think.


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