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The terrible crisis of veteran suicides and what we can do

Intelligencer Journal - 9/15/2017

A young veteran presented for therapy 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. A buddy at work took the step and asked the 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 and 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 a tragically common issue in our nation, standing as the 10th-leading cause of death per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This issue affects all Americans, but hits our nation’s veterans, service members, and military families and communities particularly hard.

While veterans make up only 8.5 percent of the U.S. population, a 2016 Department of Veterans Affairs report revealed they accounted for 18 percent of deaths by suicide, or 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 are incredibly resilient, but they also 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. We hear all too often “I’ve got it” and “I’m good,” even when things are at their worst.

The important thing to know is that death by 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.

Be there. Be available. 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, having no sense of purpose in life;

- feeling anxious, agitated, unable to sleep;

- talking about feeling trapped -like there is no way out of a situation;

- 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:

- Talk to him or her in private.

- Be honest and upfront.

- Ask directly if he or she is thinking about suicide.

- Listen more than you speak.

- Be nonjudgmental.

- Remain calm.

- Don’t argue.

- Encourage the person 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, 800-273-8255, and press 1 to receive free, confidential support from a qualified responder now.

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

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.

Leah Blain, Ph.D., 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 for the past 10 years.



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