Background. Life events are often reported to precede suicide. This paper aims to determine the frequency, timing and type of life events preceding suicide by young people and those with and without a mental illness. Method. Informants, usually family members, were interviewed for a sample of young (less than 35 years) suicides. Information was recorded on events occurring in the 6 months before death. Equivalent information was obtained for living controls who had been matched for age and gender and obtained through the general practices of the suicides. Results. Suicide was associated with life events in the previous 3 months, and particularly in the previous week. Specifically, interpersonal and forensic (being arrested, charged or sentenced) events distinguished suicides and controls. The number of life events in the different time periods under study did not distinguish suicides with and without severe mental illness, although more suicides without a severe mental illness had a reported life event in the week before their death. Conclusions. Adverse life events frequently precede suicide in young people with and without severe mental illness. However, recent life events may have a lesser causal role in those with severe mental illness. Clinical and health promotion measures to improve the way that young people cope with interpersonal problems and other crises may be an important part of any suicide prevention strategy.