What are risk and protective factors?
Risk and protective factors are like two sides of the same coin. Both can have a powerful influence on our mental, physical and behavioral wellbeing. But neither have the final say when it comes to your health.
A risk factor is a characteristic, condition or behavior that increases a person’s likelihood of experiencing illness, injury or harm. Adverse childhood experiences, like violence in the home, for example, are a risk factor for suicidal behaviors, harmful substance use, and chronic disease. Meanwhile, a protective factor is a characteristic, condition or behavior that lowers a person’s likelihood of negative health outcomes. For example, growing up in a safe and stable neighborhood is associated with better health.
Risk and protective factors exist in a wide variety of contexts; your biology, relationships, communities, culture, behaviors, and relationships all have a chance to contribute to your whole health story. They even influence each other. And while both lead to positive or negative effects, the risk or protective factors in a person’s life are not a measure of a person’s character.
Know the difference
Common risk factors include
Behavioral risks: Harmful substance use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, or risky sexual behaviors.
Physiological and genetic risks: Age, gender, high blood pressure, obesity, or your family medical history.
Environmental and cultural risks: Poor working conditions, limited access to healthcare, isolation, or institutional racism.
Important protective factors include
- Supportive relationships.
- Healthy coping strategies.
- A sense of purpose.
- Positive parenting by caring adults.
- Emotional self-awareness.
- Socioeconomic stability.
- The willingness to seek help.
- Problem-solving skills.
Key features of risk and protective factors
Some factors change, others stay the same.
Factors like your age, sex, or family health history can’t be changed. Some factors, like where you live or how much money you make, change over time. Other factors, like a healthy diet, wearing a seatbelt, or engaging in harmful substance use, are behaviors that may be impacted by awareness, trauma, or social determinants of health like access to resources..
Factors often relate to and build on each other.
Research shows that the more adverse childhood experiences an individual has, the higher their risk for negative health outcomes climbs. That’s because risk and protective factors are connected. Simply put, people with some risk factors have a greater chance of experiencing even more risk factors, and they are less likely to have protective factors. This connection is true for protective factors, too.
Addressing one factor can improve multiple outcomes
Nearly every risk or protective factor can be linked to a variety of health outcomes. For example, a child who grows up with harmful substance use in their home is at increased risk for other mental or behavioral health challenges, like anxiety or neglect. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. By effectively addressing a single risk factor or social problem, like poverty, we can lower the risk for a number of related negative health outcomes at once. That’s one powerful way to help whole communities achieve better health.
The far-reaching effects of risk and protective factors make adopting early, upstream prevention strategies especially effective. Understanding the root causes of Wisconsin’s most pressing public health challenges is the first step to preventing trauma before it can occur.
Want to learn more about the effects of risk and protective factors? Check out these additional resources:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Risk and Protective Factors (PDF)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Risk and Protective Factors
- Center for the Study of Social Policy: Strengthening Families (PDF)
Get to know the influential elements of mental, physical, and behavioral health that help public health professionals and others understand and promote resilience in our communities and organizations, in our relationships, and within ourselves.