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Written by Dr. Joyce Grissom, HNFS Chief Medical Officer
September is Suicide Prevention Month. Suicide prevention is particularly important for service members, veterans and those who love and care for them. For more than a decade, suicide rates have been higher among veterans than among non-veterans. Sadly, those numbers continue to rise year after year. A recent study indicates that more than 30,000 service members and veterans of the 9/11 wars have died by suicide compared to approximately 7,000 killed in military operations. It is likely that anyone reading this message has a personal stake in recognizing a friend or family member at risk for suicide, and understanding the appropriate actions that can help.
Current events such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, or events in the areas of the world where veterans or service members have served, may be triggers for depression, substance use and suicidal thoughts. Direct warning signs – like writing or talking about suicide, a wish to die, or death in general and indirect warning signs – such as increased or excessive use of alcohol or drugs and/or reckless behavior usually come before a suicide attempt. Learn more about suicide warning signs at save.org. These warning signs are even more significant for those who have attempted suicide before, who have family members or close friends who have died by suicide or who have concrete plans and access to effective means of suicide.
It’s OK to ask
It is important for you to know that it is OK to ask someone about suicidal thoughts or plans. Asking someone if they are thinking about suicide does not give them the idea or encourage them to do it. The conversation may be a relief to the suicidal person and can show them that someone does care. Your outreach could help save a life.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers a 5-step plan for communicating with a person you think may be at risk for suicide:
- Ask: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” It’s not an easy question, but studies show that asking people if they are suicidal does not increase suicides or suicidal thoughts and can be an important first step in getting help.
- Keep them safe: Reducing a suicidal person’s access to lethal items or places is an important part of suicide prevention. Asking if the person has a plan and removing or disabling the lethal means can make a difference.
- Be there: Listen carefully and learn what the individual is thinking and feeling. Acknowledging and talking about suicide has been shown to help reduce, not increase, suicidal thoughts.
- Help them connect: Save the Military Crisis Line’s phone number in your contacts: 1-800-273-8255 (or text 838255). You can also help make a connection with a trusted family member, friend, spiritual advisor, or mental health professional. As always, call 911 in the case of an emergency.
- Stay connected: Staying connected with someone at risk can make a difference. Studies show the number of suicide deaths goes down when a support system is in place.
Suicide prevention training
Like CPR for heart disease, free or low-cost suicide prevention training is available. Question, Persuade, and Refer training and safeTALK Suicide Alertness Training are a couple of examples.
Because a person has been suicidal does not mean that they will always be so. Suicidal crises are often short-term, time-limited situations. With professional help, support and treatment, people who suffer with suicidal thoughts can fully recover and move on to lead long, healthy and happy lives.
TRICARE covers a wide range of mental health care services, including psychotherapy, psychiatry (medication management), intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization (day) programs, inpatient and outpatient substance use programs, and acute inpatient care. Telemental (remote) options are available. A mental health care professional can assess the situation and guide an at-risk individual to an appropriate level of care. If you need help locating a provider, use our online directory or contact us 24/7.