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Preventing Veteran Suicides

Review These Life-Saving Strategies

Now more than ever, it is critical to check in with your loved ones, friends, and family – especially those who are veterans. This year, it may feel like you are riding a roller coaster with unexpected twists and turns coming more frequently than you feel equipped to handle. We are so consumed with our own ups and downs that we may forget to connect with others, but the life of a veteran could be at stake. 

Suicide is a hard topic to think about, let alone discuss. Those who are willing to sacrifice so much for so many should never feel compelled to end their own lives. Yet more than 6,300 veterans have taken their lives every year since 2008. The most recent report from the Department of Veterans Affairs showed that 6,435 veterans died by suicide in 2018. On average, about seventeen veterans die by suicide each day. 

There are many reasons why this happens, such as loss, depression, chronic pain, impulses, traumatic stress, loneliness, and isolation. Another important reason is veterans often feel different from and distant from the civilians whom they have protected. Welcome home parties and parades fade from memory, but the work of welcoming veterans home – day after day – must continue. 

Helping Veterans You Know

There are many things you can do to help prevent veterans from taking their lives. Try to connect with veterans you know on a regular basis by phone, through video chat, and in person if possible. Let them know you are interested in them and what they are doing. A good relationship goes a long way toward giving someone a reason to live. 

You can also help veterans access care through the VA. Offer to go with them to the McGuire VA Medical Center where urgent walk-in mental health appointments are available. If they resist, call Coaching Into Care at 888-823-7458, or email CoachingIntoCare@va.gov to find out how to encourage veterans to seek care. Making this connection is critical because research shows that veterans engaged in VA care have lower rates of suicide. 

What You Should Look For

There are many risk factors for suicide among veterans, but these three are the most critical ones to remember: hopelessness, history of prior suicide attempts, and recent thoughts about suicide. 

It’s also important to remain alert to warning signs of an imminent suicide. These include threatening suicide or self-harm (including writing notes); researching suicide methods; trying to obtain means of death such as weapons or medications; giving away treasured possessions; obtaining life insurance or increasing the size of the policy; increasing substance use; withdrawing from friends and family; and talking about despair or having no reason to live. 

Another important factor in suicide among veterans is access to firearms. Guns are used in 68 percent of male veteran suicides and 41 percent of female veteran suicides. If you are worried about a veteran who has access to guns in his or her home, discuss ways to reduce impulsive access to a gun, such as gun safes, gun locks, and the storage of ammunition separate from weapons. Talk to veterans about how these actions protect children and other family members in the home. Remember, these can be difficult, but life-saving, conversations.

Starting the Conversation

If you have seen the warning signs and you have concerns about veterans you know, start by reminding them that you care about them. Validate their feelings, but not threats of self-harm. Try to listen more than you talk, and repeat what you hear (“I hear you saying…”), so they feel understood. Never tell a veteran you understand, however, because he or she will say you don’t and may get angry. 

If you think a veteran might do something to harm himself or herself, ask these questions:

Are you feeling hopeless?

Have you had thoughts about ending your life?

When did you have these thoughts, and do you have a plan?

Have you ever attempted suicide?

Please be assured that asking these questions does not put ideas about suicide into a person’s head; in fact, asking in an empathic manner can help make veterans feel like you care. If the answer is “yes” to any of the first three questions above, you may need to take steps to protect veterans from self-harm. Act calmly (even if you don’t feel that way) and reassure them. Ask them to call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, or call 9-1-1. They can also text to 838255, or chat at veteranscrisisline.net. 

Next, you can help veterans remove means of self-harm by offering to keep weapons and/or medications, or you can ask them to let a family member, friend, or other veteran hold their weapon(s) until they feel better. You can also bring the veteran to the nearest hospital emergency department. 

What You Shouldn’t Do

There are also things you should not do when you are concerned for a veteran’s well-being. Try not to overreact to passive statements like, “I wish I were dead.” Don’t attempt to physically remove weapons from a veteran. Don’t leave the veteran alone, unless he or she is threatening you. If you are on the phone with a veteran in crisis, do not end the call; find out where the veteran is and send help. And don’t make a suicide safety agreement in which the veteran promises not to hurt themselves. They don’t work. 

As a friend or family member, your actions matter. If you can help a veteran get past the initial impulse and get him or her to safety, you can save a life. All you have to do is care, listen, and act if necessary. Do this for them, as they may have already saved your life and your freedoms.

Brian L. Meyer, PhD
Brian L. Meyer, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and the psychology program manager for the community-based outpatient clinics of the Central Virginia VA Health Care System. He has been married for thirty-three years and adores his wife, three children, and baby granddaughter.
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