Identifying Signs of Suicide in Veterans & How to Help
Because of the difficult situations and experiences active-duty military members face, veterans can come home from war carrying a weight they didn’t go in with. Without the right help, that weight can seem like too much, leading some veterans to consider—or carry out—suicide.
As a veteran struggling with suicidal thoughts, or a loved one to a veteran who is exhibiting warning signs, know that there is help, and it’s brave of you to seek it out.
In this article you will learn:
- Some warning signs of suicide.
- The role of mental health disorders and substance abuse in suicide among military veterans.
- Where to go for help if you are concerned about yourself or a loved one.
Veteran Suicide: Warning Signs
If you or a loved one are contemplating suicide, call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 for the veterans’ crisis line.
Not all people who attempt or complete suicide will show any or all of the common warning signs of suicide. Some people may exhibit only one or two of the following signs, or their loved ones may miss the signs before the person attempted or completed suicide.
However, research has shown that most people who attempt or complete suicide do exhibit at least some of the more common warning signs, which include:1
- Feelings of hopelessness.
- Acting agitated.
- Struggling with anxiety.
- Outbursts of anger or rage.
- Not considering danger when performing risky behaviors.
- An increase in substance use or abuse.
- Isolating themselves from the people close to them.
Other things to be on the lookout for include:2
- Gifting important possessions to people.
- Discussing the act of suicide or writing about it.
- Shifts in mood that seem out of the ordinary.
- Collecting items that can do you harm, such as a gun or pills.
Why Are Veterans at a Higher Risk of Suicide?
There are many theories on why military veterans are more likely to attempt suicide than the civilian population. Some of these theories include:2
- Frequent deployments.
- Deployments in areas with a high risk for hostilities or combat.
- Exposure to the extreme stress of life-or-death situations.
- Sexual and/or physical assault during service.
- Long deployments.
- The aftereffects of physical injuries due to military services.
Other factors related to the higher risk of suicide among veterans are related to undiagnosed or untreated conditions, such as PTSD or mood disorders, which can increase a person’s overall risk of suicide.
Certain psychiatric disorders have been found in research studies to be associated with increased suicide risk among veterans. Bipolar disorder, for example, has been associated with an increased risk of suicide among military service veterans, especially if they are male.3
PTSD and Substance Abuse Increase Risk of Veteran Suicide
PTSD is a common occurrence among military service members and is often associated with substance abuse. In fact, 1 in 3 veterans seeking treatment for PTSD also has a substance use disorder.4
However, when PTSD goes untreated, especially if a veteran also has substance abuse issues, the veteran’s risk of suicide increases.5
Veterans who seek mental health intervention are less likely to commit suicide than veterans who do not seek treatment. This finding indicates that treatment may be able help you, no matter how hopeless or difficult your situation might feel right now. 6
Even without PTSD, a veteran who has a substance abuse issue is at greater risk for suicide in general, particularly if the veteran is female.7 Unfortunately, substance abuse in military veterans is an all-too-common issue. Veterans have a higher rate of diagnosed substance abuse disorders than the general population, in part due to the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism for the extreme stress of military life. 8 (Alcohol section)
Mental Health Disorder Treatment for Veterans
There are programs available to assist you with treatment that is specific to the needs of military veterans. The VA offers a wide range of treatment programs that include programs that can address sexual trauma and other forms of trauma experienced by military personnel.
There are a few hotlines you can contact for help, including:
- VA Crisis Hotline: You can reach them by phone (1-800-273-8255) or via text (838255). You can also start a confidential chat with the organization online. If you are hard or hearing or deaf, they have a separate number for you (1-800-799-4889). This crisis line is available 24/7. Many responders are veterans themselves.
- Vets for Warriors: This is a peer support network, with veterans answering the phone for those in need. You can reach them at 1-855-838-8255.
There are also a range of treatment options at VA facilities around the country, which offer:
- Group, family, and individual counseling.
- Inpatient treatment for mental health or substance abuse.
- Specialized treatment for PTSD.
Furthermore, in an effort to reach more military veterans, the VA is expanding telehealth services to rural and underserved areas.
In addition, there are private treatment centers that can offer treatment for military veterans.
The Salute to Recovery Program, which is located at Desert Hope, a treatment center in Las Vegas, is a specialized program that is tailored to the needs of military veterans.
Salute to Recovery entails treatment for addiction and other mental health disorders that is designed especially for military veterans. Many staff members are themselves veterans, which helps them understand where you are coming from.
Not only will you have staff who understand, but your fellow program participants will be veterans and first responders who can relate your experience and support you during and after your time in treatment.
Recovery First also offers a program at their facility in Hollywood, Florida, which is designed to meet the specific needs of first responders and military veterans. The program incorporates evidence-based treatment to address the needs of military veterans.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2020) Suicide Prevention.
- California Department of Veteran Affairs. (2013). Suicide Prevention.
- Ilgen, M.A., Bohnert, A.S., Ignacio, R.V., McCarthy, J.F., Valenstein, M.M., Kim, H.M., & Blow, F.C. (2010). Psychiatric diagnoses and risk of suicide in veterans. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67 (11), 1152-1158.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019) PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans.
- Reisman M. (2016). PTSD Treatment for Veterans: What’s Working, What’s New, and What’s Next. P & T: A Peer-Reviewed Journal for Formulary Management, 41(10), 623–634.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2016). VA Releases Report on Nation’s Largest Analysis of Veteran Suicide.
- Science Daily. (2017). Drug and Alcohol Problems Linked to Increased Veteran Suicide Risk, Especially in Women.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Substance Use and Military Life.