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Preventing Military Suicide: How to Spot the Warning Signs and Help Service Members

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Service members who are experiencing suicidal thoughts may not explicitly ask for help, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need it. If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, then don’t hesitate to reach out to either the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 or the Suicide Hotline number for your state.

In June 2018, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released statistics from a recent analysis of Veteran suicide data they had gathered from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Military.com added further clarification to this data and outlined how “the report shows the total is 20.6 suicides every day. Of those, 16.8 were veterans and 3.8 were active-duty service members, guardsmen and reservists, the report states. That amounts to 6,132 veterans and 1,387 service members who died by suicide in one year.”

While veterans, especially women, are at a higher risk of suicide, Craig Bryan—a psychologist and leader of the National Center for Veterans Studies—says that “The key message is that suicides are elevated among those who have ever served."

This data underscores the important fact that suicide is a national public health concern that affects people from all walks of life. It also shows that service members are at an especially high risk for suicide. This is further evidenced by statistics The Guardian reported on in September 2018, which outlined how service members between the ages of 18 to 34 are at a higher risk of suicide than any other age group in the country.

In that same report from The Guardian, Joe Chenelly, the executive director for the national veterans group Amvets, is quoted saying that “This isn’t just alarming. It’s a national emergency that requires immediate action.”

There are ways you can help. Everyone can and should contribute to the prevention of military suicide. With the following facts and techniques, you can equip yourself with the tools needed to spot the telltale signs of suicidal behavior and the knowledge needed to help reach out to those who are in need.

Spotting the Signs

Everyone handles things differently. While there are certain behaviors that are often linked to thoughts of suicide, there’s no foolproof way to know something someone hasn’t vocalized.

Still, to help you recognize some of the signs that tend to suggest that someone’s in need of help, Military.com has an outline of attitudes and behaviors that you can watch out for in the lives of the service members in your life:

  • A loss of interest in their day-to-day activities

  • Withdrawal from family and friends

  • Expressions of hopelessness

  • Excessive guilt and shame

  • A neglect for personal health and well-being

These are only a few of the many warning signs you should be alert to, but it’s a good place to start.

You don’t have to be an expert in the mental health field to help someone who is dealing with these kinds of feelings; you just have to be willing to listen, talk, and to be the support someone needs to get healthy.

How to Help

Knowing how to help someone in a difficult situation can be challenging. But if you feel like they’re struggling with something, then the best thing you can do is to ask them about it in a non-judgemental, straightforward, and ultimately supportive way. You want them to feel safe with you, and the safer they feel, the more willing they’ll be to speak to you about the difficult subjects and feelings they may be dealing with.

Asking a question can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. The more open you can be, the easier it’ll be to open the door for an effective dialogue about the emotional pain someone may be experiencing. Once that door is open, then it allows everyone involved to see what kinds of steps need to be taken next in order to properly support and care for whoever is in need.

Sometimes the most important thing you can do is just listen to whatever it is someone needs to say. If you can show them that you care, that you want to hear how they’re doing—how they’re really doing—and want to see them live full and healthy lives, then you’ll be showing them that, whatever it is they’re going through, they’re not in it alone.

#BeThe1To says that one of the best ways to keep someone in this position safe is by “putting time and distance” between the person and whatever method of suicide they have either talked to you about or you suspect they may have considered. Additionally, and more importantly, seek professional help right away.

Calling the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, which offers free and confidential help, is a great place to start. Calling a local crisis center, dialing 911, or even taking an individual to the closest emergency room can be effective ways of providing someone with the first steps they need to take towards living a healthier, fuller life.

When we train ourselves to spot the warning signs of someone struggling with suicidal thoughts and equip ourselves with the tools to reach out a helping hand, we can all play an important role in providing the kind of care and compassion that helps prevent suicide from touching the lives of all the past and present service members in our life.