Experiencing a traumatic event is common among service members who serve in hostile environments around the globe. Everyone reacts to traumatic experiences differently, and some service members or veterans may face emotional or psychological challenges such as feelings of anger, isolation, anxiety or guilt following the event or when they return home. These reactions, among others, can be common and expected responses to extraordinary events.
However, for some service members or veterans, these feelings may be signs of more serious conditions, including depression or postraumatic stress disorder. Warriors coping with these concerns may feel like there is no escape from their symptoms, leading them to have thoughts of suicide or engage in high risk behavior.
The following feelings and behaviors can all be signs for concern. It is important to seek professional guidance right away if your loved one is:
- Thinking about hurting or killing him or herself
- Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide
- Unable to sleep or oversleeping
- Withdrawing from friends, family or society
- Increasing alcohol or drug use
- Engaging in reckless or risky behavior
- Experiencing excessive rage, anger or desire for revenge
- Having feelings of anxiety, agitation or hopelessness
- Reliving past stressful experiences
- Experiencing dramatic changes in mood
It can be difficult to know what to do if you think a loved one may be considering suicide. Ask your warrior about suicidal thoughts.
- Have the courage to ask if your warrior is having thoughts of suicide, but stay calm.
- Ask the question directly: Are you thinking of killing yourself?
- Know the signs for concern listed above.
CARE for your warrior
- Stay calm and safe — do not use force.
- Understand that your loved one may be in pain.
- Remove any objects or tools that pose a danger to your warrior.
- Actively listen for details about what, where and when your warrior may be planning to kill himself or herself.
- Be non-judgmental as you listen, which can help produce relief for the warrior.
ESCORT your warrior to get help
- Escort your warrior immediately to his or her chaplain or behavioral health professional.
- Call 911 or the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-TALK and press 1 to speak with a trained professional right away.
- Don't keep your warrior's suicidal behavior a secret.
- Never leave your warrior alone — stay until he/she receives appropriate help.
- Adopting an attitude that you are going to help your loved one may save his or her life.
All military families can speak to a trained professional 24/7 for free by contacting:
- The Military Crisis Line (visit the Military Crisis Line Chat or call 800-273-TALK to talk with a crisis counselor)
- The DCOE Outreach Center (call 866-966-1020 to talk with a health resource consultant)
- Military OneSource (call 800-342-9647 for one-on-one counseling)
Additionally, there are service-specific resources available to military families, including:
- Air Man and Family Readiness
- U.S. Army Family Readiness Group
- U.S. Marine Corps Family Readiness
- U.S. Navy Fleet and Family Readiness
- Try to stay organized by creating a daily schedule of tasks and activities. Cross out tasks as they're accomplished so he or she can have a visual reminder of their achievements
- Consider writing in a journal to express pain, anger, fear or other emotions
- Be social. Get together with peers, commanding officers, family, friends or other members of the community regularly
- Stay physically fit by eating a healthy diet and getting sufficient sleep
- Stay motivated in tough times by keeping their personal and career goals in mind
- Use relaxation techniques to aid in stress management
- Practice and draw strength from his or her spiritual tenants
The stakes in the fight against military suicide are the same as the stakes in combat: lives are on the line. Support your warrior, "Stand by them. We'll stand by you," contact the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-TALK (8255) and press 1.
Military suicides have been climbing since the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan began. But it’s not because soldiers are going off to war. Overall, the majority of soldiers who have taken their own lives have had no history of deployment, a finding that was confirmed by the largest study of its kind in the journal JAMA Psychiatry April 2015.
The Department of Defense (DOD) has spent more than $50 million trying to figure out why. And each service branch has launched programs to prevent more deaths. Meanwhile, suicide has become the second-leading cause of death among military personnel. Service members take their lives at a rate of 18.7 per 100,000, according to the latest DOD figures, compared to 12.6 deaths per 100,000 in the general U.S. population.
And there are still few explanations for why those who don’t deploy have taken their lives in greater numbers. That may be because we’re asking the wrong questions, said Craig Bryan, a former Air Force psychologist who now leads the National Center for Veterans Studies and has been researching military suicide for years. “We need to get out of this mindset of looking at deployment,” he said, since many service members are sent to non-combat bases. “We now have enough evidence that there’s not a useful metric … and we’re not really moving on with understanding why some service members are at an increased risk relative to others.”
Bryan’s research and the JAMA study sketch a more complicated picture of military members who take their own lives. Suicide happens for deeply personal reasons that can affect military personnel and veterans just like the rest of us — not just mental illness, but also relationship, financial and legal woes. “There is reason to suspect that they might experience these issues at higher rates than the rest of the population,” Bryan said. That’s due in part to the high-stress environment of the military, which has only been exacerbated over the past decade as the U.S. has fought two major wars.
The JAMA study found two subsets of military service members who seem to be especially at risk. It examined the records of 3.9 million service members who served in the military from October 7, 2001, when the Afghanistan war began, through Dec. 31, 2007.
Researchers found a higher risk of suicide among those who either left the military before their four years of service were up, or who received a less-than-honorable discharge.
That raises new questions about how to reach this at-risk population, since they aren’t always eligible for services from the Department of Veterans Affairs and don’t get the support that other veterans might. The new data leaves another unanswered question: If deployment alone is not a factor, and military members are affected by the same everyday stresses as the rest of the population, why has the suicide rate risen now? “That is exactly the question everyone is working so hard to understand,” said Mark Reger, the JAMA study’s main author and deputy director of the DOD’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology. “The answers that we have are not satisfying at this point.”
The War Factor
One important clue for those who have been to war may center around the question of whether a military member has direct experience with a traumatic event. That’s an issue that Bryan has been examining for some time.
In 2013, military psychologist Peter Linnerouth took his own life after returning from a deployment to Iraq. Linnerouth had worked hard to help other soldiers, and later veterans, who struggled with suicidal thoughts before he died. Bryan said Linnerouth’s death spurred him to take a closer look at the reasons behind suicide for those who had been to war. “I remember talking with one of his friends, and he said, ‘I know what your studies say, but I’ll never believe that what Peter saw had zero impact — that was the moment that things changed for him.”
Bryan analyzed 22 studies of military suicide in the U.S., Norway and Canada, for a paper to be published later this month. His research suggests it’s not combat alone, but a service member’s experience that makes them more likely to take their own life.
His study found that for those exposed to killing and death, the risk for suicide rises by 43 percent. That includes not just those who witnessed or were involved in a traumatic event, but those who came into contact with those who were wounded or killed, such as medics, chaplains and personnel working in mortuaries. The correlation only emerged in studies that asked specific questions about what people experienced. “When the researchers get down to asking, ‘Did you kill someone? Have you seen someone get killed? Have you been unable to help someone? — Yes, there’s a relationship,” Bryan said. “We thought, This is what we’ve been missing.”
The findings have implications for the Defense Department, which has struggled to combat the stigma of mental illness in the ranks of the military. Those who ask for help are often seen as weak — which is anathema to the military’s warrior culture. In recent years, the DOD has tried to send a new message, urging people to seek help.
Meanwhile, the deaths continue. The Pentagon confirmed that suicides increased last year among active-duty service members, although the number dropped among reserves. In total, 434 service members, including active duty and reserve, took their own lives.
1. Hudenko, W. "The Relationship Between PTSD and Suicide,"
2. "Risk and Protective Factors," [PDF 482.84KB] Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. Published Sept. 2011.
3. Suicide Prevention: DOD Family ACE Card (TA-144-0810), Defense Department. Published Aug. 2010.
4.ACE Suicide prevention Program: Trainer's Manual. [PDF 1.8MB], U.S. Army Public Health Command. Published Jan. 28, 2008.
5. "Coping and Support," The Mayo Clinic. Last accessed Aug. 21, 2014.