How to Respond to a Veteran Contemplating Suicide

Background:

Suicide among the Veteran community remains a significant issue. People getting out of the military are at the highest risk of suicide in the year after they leave — about 1½ to two times as likely to kill themselves as those still on active duty.

The overall risk of suicide for Veterans is about 22% higher than that of his or her non veteran peers, according to a report last year from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

While many organizations and charities are focused on mitigating the problem through outreach and education, the most critical time to provide help is when the situation has escalated. Many people ask us for advice, and below are some tips we have found over time.

Rules of Engagement:

  1. If you have a friend in danger, know that you can help. Your job title or skills aren’t important. It doesn’t matter if you are a first responder, a therapist, a medic, or even a Veteran yourself. Being a professional won’t matter to your friend and it shouldn’t matter to you.
  2. Get on the phone and talk. Active communication is important when somebody is contemplating suicide.
  3. Follow the same instincts as you would for any type of immediate danger. It is important that you remain focused on the seriousness of the issue. Suicidal ideation requires the same urgency of action as other life-threatening circumstances.
  4. Be direct. No messing around. Ask the hard questions. Don’t mince words. People at this point feel the danger lies in living, that there is peace in dying. Remember it’s not about how you feel, about how you would feel shocked, betrayed, sad, or scared. Your total and complete focus is on your friend on the other end of the phone.
  5. Don’t ask “are you in danger?” or “are you going to hurt yourself?” or “you’re not thinking of doing something stupid, are you?” Do ask how they would kill themselves. By understanding their intentions, you can know what you are dealing with and how to proceed.
  6. Listen to their story. Tell them you want to hear about it. Let them know that you want to hear about what’s going on if they are in a place to talk. If they have already taken pills or they have a means to complete their attempt, call 9-1-1. Tell them, “If you hang up, I am going to call 9-1-1.” Keep talking to them. If there is no immediate danger or plan, take it slow and listen to their story. Something happened recently to get your friend to this place, likely an accumulation of things. It may be very specific. That’s the story you need to listen to, without judgment. Again, it’s not about you. It’s about your friend and their pain, their story.
  7. At some point, something is going to come up to make them move back toward life. A reason to live, a reason they want to live. This reason could be their kids, their spouse, you, or anything that is important to them. This is not the place throw guilt or shame. Don’t say something along the lines of, “how do you think they will feel when you are gone?”
  8. Just listen. When they start talking about things that could happen in the future, you may have turned a corner. After talking for a period of time, and they have gotten things off their chest, they may have gotten a reminder that there are things to live for.
  9. You may want to ask, “What was your plan?” Tell them we need to figure out how to disable the elements that would make that plan possible. Not forever, just for now until we can make sure you are safe. The best plan is one you and your friend make together and confirm.
  10. The next step is where we are going from here. Who do you want me to call that will be safe to hang out with until you can get to your doctor, the vet center, or to see a therapist. Once you know they are safe, tell them you love them and that you are thankful that they chose you to connect with. There is no greater honor than being the lifeline that a Veteran reaches for before drowning. Being their rock of stability is something they will be forever grateful for.

Veterans Crisis Line:

Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1

Use Veterans Crisis Line online chat

Send a text message to the Veterans Crisis Line at 838255.

The Veterans Crisis Line provides free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. If you feel you are in a crisis, whether you’re thinking about killing yourself or not, you can also contact the Veterans Crisis Line. It’s better to call sooner, rather than wait for problems to get worse.