Suicide among veterans and active duty service members is not just a mental health problem, it's a public health problem. It is important that other soldiers and civilians are aware of risk factors and warning signs, as well as how to get help for someone expressing suicidal statements or showing warning signs. Male veterans are more than twice as likely to die by suicide as non-veteran male counterparts. It is important to remember to take care of the "invisible wounds" of our military and veteran population as we would physical wounds. Suicide is a concern in all branches of the military and of currently serving members and veterans alike. Suicide risk has been noted in both deployed service members and those that have never been deployed.
As a Veteran or a Veteran’s family member or friend, you know that everyone faces challenges, and that dealing with life’s difficulties takes determination and resilience. Whether you’re recovering from physical injuries or struggles no one else can see, asking for help when you need it is a sign of strength.
A major part of preventing suicide is being able to identify and address warning signs.
They can include:
- Increased substance use (alcohol or drugs)
- No reason for living
- No sense of purpose in life
- A change in sleeping patterns, sleeping too much or too little
- Feeling trapped, like there is no way out
- Withdrawal from friends, family and society
- Rage, uncontrolled anger and seeking revenge
- Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking
- Dramatic mood changes
If you are experiencing a mental health concern or emotional crisis you should contact the Veterans Crisis Line by phone, text, or on-line chat to be connected with a VA trained responder from the Veterans crisis line, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Key Facts About Veteran Suicide
There is no single cause of suicide. Suicide deaths reflect a complex interaction of risk and protective factors at the individual, community, and societal levels.
Risk factors are characteristics associated with a greater likelihood of suicidal behaviors. Some risk factors for suicide include:
- A prior suicide attempt
- Mental health conditions
- Stressful life events such as divorce, job loss, or the death of a loved one
- Availability of lethal means
Protective factors can help offset risk factors. These are characteristics associated with a lesser likelihood of suicidal behaviors. Some protective factors for suicide include:
- Positive coping skills
- Having reasons for living or a sense of purpose in life
- Feeling connected to other people
- Access to mental health care
In addition to the protective factors described above, Veterans may possess unique protective factors related to their service, such as resilience or a strong sense of belonging to a unit. They may also possess risk factors related to their military service, such as service-related injury or a recent transition from military service to civilian life. Preventing Veteran suicide requires strategies that maximize protective factors while minimizing risk factors at all levels throughout communities nationwide.
Reducing stigma is a very real piece of getting help for those that are thinking about suicide in all populations. The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) offers several programs such as the Real Warriors Campaign and www.afterdeployment.org to provide services to service members and veterans and assist in reducing stigma.
It is important to address suicidal thoughts with service members In addition to getting help for them, it is important to understand that some service members may feel that if they get help they will be seen as "unstable" or "weak." They may also worry about job repercussions. It is important to listen openly to their fears, but to not let these fears dissuade you from getting someone help. An open, honest conversation about their fears with someone they trust may be enough of a reassurance to convince the service member to get help.
As with any population, some may be vocal about expressing thoughts of suicide, others will suffer in silence. If you notice warning signs and risk factors in those around you, it is important to ask if they are considering suicide. You may save a life.
Information adapted from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, National Institute of Health and the Defense Centers of Excellence, and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide 2018-2028 (2018).