Worried about your loved one? How to help veterans at risk of suicide


(BPT) - Returning to civilian life can be difficult for veterans, especially if they struggle with mental health. Too often, veterans experiencing mental health challenges are embarrassed to ask for help. This fear of what others will think is a stigma that often prevents them from seeking care.

According to the latest Annual Warrior Survey from Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP), about 1 in 5 WWP warriors report difficulty or delays in receiving or continuing professional mental health care. Of those warriors, 2 in 3 feel embarrassed or ashamed about getting such care.

Stigma is real and can profoundly affect veterans struggling with emotional issues. This is especially concerning given the prevalence of suicide among veterans. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 17 veterans die each day by suicide. In addition, WWP's survey found nearly 1 in 4 WWP warriors had suicidal thoughts in the past 12 months. Of the warriors who reported those suicidal thoughts, most (70%) had them in the last two weeks.

While no one can wipe out stigma or defeat suicide overnight, you can help veterans and other loved ones in your life who are struggling. Check out these five tips that you can use to help a veteran in crisis and prevent suicide.

1. Spot the signs

If you're worried about a loved one, you should watch for words or actions that suggest suicidal thoughts. It can be as direct as a veteran saying they "want to die" or that others "would be better off without them." Other signs are indirect but equally important to notice.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some other signs include:

  • Using substances like drugs and alcohol more often
  • Eating or sleeping less
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Dangerous risk-taking
  • Withdrawing from friends
  • Saying goodbye to loved ones, giving away important items or making a will
  • Researching ways to die and making a plan to take their life

Someone in crisis may not exhibit all these signs, but if your friend or family member displays any of them, there is a good chance they are struggling and need support.

2. Initiate conversation directly

It can be scary, but initiating a direct conversation about suicide is often vital to getting someone the support they need. You may be reluctant to start the conversation for fear that the person may not be contemplating suicide and that you've given them the idea by asking about it, but that couldn't be farther from the truth.

"Asking someone if they want to kill themselves won't put the idea into their head or make them more likely to die by suicide," said Erin Fletcher, Psy.D., director of WWP's Warrior Care Network. "Veterans struggling with suicide are looking for a lifeline, so you directly asking if they're having suicidal thoughts could be what prevents them from going through with a plan."

You can ease into the conversation by saying, "I'm concerned about you," "I've noticed you've withdrawn," or "You don't seem like yourself." However, make sure to ask them directly if they're thinking of taking their life.

3. Keep calm and ask questions

If someone confides in you that they're having suicidal thoughts, keep calm. It can be difficult to not under- or overreact. Staying calm will help create a safe space for veterans to share more about their struggles. It can be hard to know what to say when someone tells you they want to take their life.

To start, thank them for being vulnerable and sharing their experience with you. Next, encourage them to keep talking. You can do this by asking follow-up questions. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, some helpful things to ask someone contemplating suicide include:

  • "How long have you felt this way?"
  • "When did these suicidal thoughts start?"
  • "How often do you have these thoughts?"
  • "Do you want to go to a hospital?"
  • "What do you need to feel safe?"

If at any point a loved one wants to stop talking about their situation, let them know that you want to support them and that they can talk more later.

4. Let them know they're not alone

One of the most difficult aspects for veterans thinking of suicide is the feeling of isolation and the burden of dealing with their mental health challenges alone. Remind them that you care about them and that they have support and resources available. Offer to connect them right away with professionals who can help them on their path to recovery.

5. Make the connection

Do your best to connect your loved one right away to a resource that can help with the next step in their recovery. The resource you choose may depend on the severity of the situation. Examples include:

  • If someone is in imminent danger of harming themselves, call 911 or take them to the closest emergency room.
  • If you are in crisis or concerned about a loved one, call the Veterans Crisis line at 988 and press "1" or text 838255 to connect with a crisis counselor 24/7, 365 days a year. They can coach you through the situation or speak directly with your loved one to figure out the next steps and resources in your area. Everyone can play a crucial role in helping a person who's facing thoughts of suicide connect to this free support and care. You can put them on the path to hope. Help is free, and only a phone call away.
  • If a veteran is not in immediate danger but admits to struggling with suicidal thoughts, WWP has free services that may help. These include peer support groups to connect them with other veterans, rehabilitative workshops, and professional services to help handle issues including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), military sexual trauma (MST), traumatic brain injury (TBI), career or financial struggles, or to simply start feeling like themselves again. Thanks to donors, these services are cost-free for post-9/11 wounded veterans and their families.

By spotting the signs, initiating the conversation directly, and connecting someone quickly to resources, you're playing a vital role in helping someone get the support they deserve. You are not alone, and neither is your loved one.

Learn more about WWP's resources and how you can help a veteran in crisis.