Suicide Prevention Month: risk, protective factors

by Capt. Rachel Wiley and Capt. Allison Valdovinos
86th Medical Group suicide prevention program managers

Although no one is immune to the adverse effects of prolonged, excessive stress, some service members are at greater risk for suicide than others. Young, unmarried males of lower rank and those experiencing legal, financial, relational or occupational problems may be more prone to suicidal thoughts or feelings. Other possible contributing factors include lack of advancement, a sense of a loss of honor and heavy drinking; approximately 90 percent of suicides are associated with mental health and substance abuse problems.

Suicide risk factors are psychological characteristics, behaviors or life experiences associated with an increase in the possibility that someone will become suicidal. The specific risk factors for suicide are generally grouped into three categories: adverse life circumstances, such as the loss of a job or relationship; medical and mental health problems; and cultural issues.

Life Circumstances
• Access to lethal means of self-harm
• Suicides within the family/community
• Career setbacks or disciplinary actions, loss of a job
• Loss of or conflict within a close relationship
• Financial problems
• Readjustment difficulties following deployment

Medical and Mental Health Problems
• History of abuse, family violence, or trauma
• Medical or mental health problems (depression, anxiety, etc.)
• Prior suicide attempt
• Impulsiveness, aggressiveness
• Alcohol and substance abuse (which can cause or exacerbate existing depression)
• Severe or prolonged stress
• Overwhelming grief from a loss (death of a loved one, divorce, disabling injury, etc.)

Cultural Issues
• Access to health care
• Beliefs that support suicide as a solution; negative attitudes toward getting help
• Limited support

Remember, risk factors do not mean a person will actually attempt suicide now or in the future. When risk factors are present, consider ways you can help that individual through social support or guiding them to appropriate resources.

Protective Factors
These factors are positive conditions, influences and resources that promote well-being and reduce the potential for suicide. They help provide support during times of stress. Some of the most common protective factors are:

• Strong social support from family, friends and co-workers
• Belief that your life has purpose and meaning
• Being optimistic about your future
• Feeling that you belong to a group
• Willingness to talk about problems and seek help
• Developing effective coping and problem-solving skills
• Engaging in regular physical activity
• Spiritual involvement
• Eating a healthy diet

When someone is considering suicide, even though you may wish you could talk them out of it, it may not be the best way to help. Avoid saying things like, “You have so much to live for,” or “Think about how this will hurt your family.” Instead, show concern and compassion by saying, “Things must really be difficult for you to be feeling that way.” Let them know you are there to listen.

Encourage them to share what they are feeling. Let them know that people sometimes feel like there is no answer, but that treatment can help them to feel better. Tell them you will support them to find help. Ask if they have a specific suicide plan. If they do, do not leave them alone, and take away any firearms, drugs or objects they could use to hurt themselves. Take them to the mental health clinic, or call 06371-46-2390, the emergency department at 06371-86-8160, the chaplain at 06371-47-2121, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for help.