Many people aren’t sure how to help when a Veteran or Service member they know is going through a difficult time — or experiencing a crisis. But the truth is, you don’t need to be an expert to talk with someone about suicide or to simply be there to lend support. VA’s Suicide Prevention Office is working to equip as many people as possible with resources that can help them prevent suicide and learn about the signs that someone may be in crisis.
You can start the conversation.
Beginning a conversation with a Veteran or Service member you’re concerned about can be scary. Sometimes we know that something isn’t right, but we hesitate to act because we don’t want to offend the person in crisis, we’re not sure how serious the situation may be, or we second-guess our ability to help. It’s important to remember that reaching out to a colleague, acquaintance, friend, or loved one — and even just being there for someone who’s feeling alone — can make a big difference.
You can start by letting someone know you care: “I’ve been noticing that you seem to be a bit down and am concerned about you.” Then a simple question — “Is everything OK?” — can open the door.
VA offers resources to help you show your concern for someone you care about. Coaching into Care supports those who want to show support for a Veteran but find it hard to talk about their concerns. Keep the following tips in mind when starting a conversation:
• Remain calm.
• Listen more than you speak.
• Maintain eye contact.
• Act with confidence.
• Don’t argue.
• Use open body language.
• Limit questions to casual information gathering.
• Use supportive and encouraging comments.
• Be as honest and upfront as possible.
Learn to recognize the signs of crisis.
I encourage everyone to become familiar with the signs of crisis — signals that can help you determine whether you should try to help a Veteran or Service member connect with care. An important warning sign is a dramatic change in behavior. For example, if someone who used to be cheerful and gregarious is suddenly sullen and reserved, it could be a sign of a deeper issue. Other common warning signs include:
• Hopelessness, feeling like there’s no way out
• Anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, or mood swings
• Feeling like there is no reason to live
• Rage or anger
• Engaging in risky activities without thinking
• Increasing alcohol or drug abuse
• Withdrawing from family and friends
And while these warning signs raise serious concerns, the following require immediate action:
• 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 or the dangerous use of weapons
If you notice these signs in a Veteran and work in a VA Medical Center, contact your facility’s Suicide Prevention Coordinator (SPC). Find your SPC here: VeteransCrisisLine.net/ResourceLocator.
If you don’t have immediate access to an SPC, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or text to 838255 to get confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. VA employees may also contact Veterans Crisis Line staff for support at VHASuicidePreventionOffice@va.gov.
It is vital that we continue to talk about suicide and work together as a community to prevent suicide. There is nothing more important than supporting Veterans, connecting them with the care they deserve, and being there for them.
By Caitlin Thompson, Ph.D.