Commentary: The veteran suicide crisis is preventable. Here's what you can do.

Depression after war
Young soldier suffering from depression after war

Earlier this year, a young veteran presented for therapy at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania following an inpatient hospitalization for suicidal thoughts.  Things had spiraled out of control, one stressor built on another, until it all felt like too much.  Fortunately, someone spotted the signs.  Not a medical doctor or a therapist, he wasn’t talking to them.  It was a buddy at work who asked the tough question.  And, thankfully, this veteran was strong enough to admit something was wrong and to seek the help that got him back in control of his life. This act saved his young children from losing their father, his parents from losing their son, and his unit from losing another life to suicide.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While this issue affects all Americans, it hits our nation’s veterans, service members, and military families particularly hard.

Though veterans make up only 8.5 percent of the U.S. population, a 2016 VA report revealed they accounted for 18 percent of deaths by suicide in 2014. That’s nearly 20 suicides per day. This means veterans face a 21 percent greater risk of suicide compared to their civilian counterparts, with an exceptionally high risk (2.4 times greater) for female veterans as compared to female civilians.

Our nation’s veterans and service members face more exposure to common suicide risk factors including stressful and traumatic events, substance use, relationship disruptions, access to firearms, sleep problems, and chronic pain.  And, as strong and resilient people, acknowledging that something is wrong can be a huge challenge. All too often we hear clients say, “I’ve got it” or “I’m good,” even when things are at their worst.

The important thing to know is suicide is preventable, and we can all play a role in prevention.

Many veterans who die by suicide are not engaged in mental health care, so community support is critical.  Here are few ways you can help support veterans, service members, and anyone in your community.

Show you care. Small actions can have a large impact. Whether it is a phone call or bringing a friend dinner, you can help someone feel included and supported.

Know the signs. Family members and friends are often the first to recognize when someone needs support.  Warning signs may include:

  • Increased substance use
  • Feeling that life is not worth living or having no sense of purpose in life
  • Feeling anxious, agitated, unable to sleep
  • Feelings of hopelessness or desperation, saying there’s no solution to their problems
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and society, or sleeping all the time
  • Violent behavior, rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge
  • Acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking
  • Dramatic mood changes

The following signs need immediate attention:

  • Thinking about hurting or killing oneself
  • Looking for ways to kill oneself
  • Talking about death, dying, or suicide
  • Self-destructive behavior such as drug abuse, weapons, etc.

Have the conversation. For someone going through a difficult time, reaching out can be the difference in getting them the help they need. While starting a conversation about suicide could seem scary, it could save someone’s life. Here are some tips for talking with someone about suicide:

  • Have the conversation in private.
  • Be honest and upfront.
  • Ask directly if they are thinking about suicide.
  • Listen more than you speak.
  • Be non-judgmental.
  • Remain calm.
  • Don’t argue.
  • Encourage them to seek treatment.

Get Help. If you are a veteran or service member experiencing these signs or know someone who is, call the Veterans Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to receive free, confidential support from a qualified responder now.

The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania provides free behavioral health services for veterans and their families, including the National Guard and Reserves. We also have resources available on our website and through our partners, Penn Medicine, for all who are in need of mental health services.

Always know that you are not alone. Get the support you deserve and encourage your loved ones to do the same.

Leah Blain, PhD, is the Clinic Director for the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania.  She has worked in the field of trauma recovery, focusing on clinical research, practice, and dissemination of evidence-based psychotherapies for PTSD, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain for the past 10 years.