A central focus of suicide research, including suicide prevention, is an understanding of suicide risk and protective factors, as well as a related term resiliency. This essay discusses each of these concepts and its relation to suicide research.
A risk factor is a characteristic that describes a group of individuals who have a higher likelihood of some undesirable health outcome. Groups of persons with the characteristic have higher rates of the outcome than those without the characteristic. For example, in the context of suicide, clinical depression is a risk factor. This risk factor is interpreted as follows: In a population, all other things being equal, it is likely that the group of people that experiences clinical depression will have higher rates of suicide than the group that does not have clinical depression.
Several things should be noted: (a) Risk factors operate at the group rather than the individual level, so while the group of people with clinical depression will have higher rates of suicide than the group of people who do not have this trait, an individual with depression is not necessarily more likely to be suicidal than an individual who is not depressed. (b) An increased risk does not necessarily translate to a high risk. The majority of people with any risk factor, no matter how potent, will not kill themselves. (c) Risk factors are associated with the outcome, but may not cause the outcome. Clinical depression does not cause suicide. Researchers do not know what causes suicide. (d) Knowledge of risk factors does not allow researchers to predict who will complete suicide.
The term protective factor has been defined rather loosely as having the opposite meaning of risk factor. Thus, a protective factor is a characteristic that is associated with a reduced rate of an outcome in groups of people having the trait. This definition is often sufficient, for example, while clinical depression is a risk factor for suicide, good mental health is a protective factor. Most researchers focus on risk factors because these are the characteristics that identify groups for whom preventive interventions may be helpful. More recently, there has been a shift toward designing interventions to increase protective factors rather than reduce risk factors, but the outcome is essentially the same.
The term resiliency factor has recently been used as a synonym for protective factor. However, resiliency is better understood as an individual’s (or group’s) ability to rebound from various adverse circumstances. An individual’s resilience is influenced by many factors and appears to be a composite of inherited abilities, experiences, environmental exposures, training, and other factors not yet fully understood.
The purposes of identifying and understanding suicide risk and protective factors are myriad, including (a) to distinguish characteristics associated with suicidal behavior that are amenable to intervention, (b) to identify and target those most in need of preventive interventions, and (c) to contribute to research aimed at identifying the true causes of suicide. These include factors at the individual, interpersonal, and environmental levels; interrelationships between multiple factors; and factors that need to be studied over time.
- Last, J. (Ed.). (1995). A dictionary of epidemiology. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Luthar, S. S. (Ed.). (2003). Resilience and vulnerability: Adaptation in the context of childhood adversities. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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