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Six ways anyone can start the conversation about suicide with a Veteran

The idea of having a conversation about suicide can fill people with dread. It’s not just because talking about suicide can feel uncomfortable. It’s also because many people feel like only mental health professionals can speak about such a complex and sensitive subject. Many people don’t feel like they’re “qualified” to help someone having thoughts of suicide.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

You don’t have to be a licensed therapist, clinician or academic to talk about suicide. The conversation doesn’t have to be filled with statistics or complicated terms. Anyone can talk about it and anyone can help someone who’s struggling with suicide.

Here are six ways anyone can be prepared to start a conversation about suicide with a Veteran.

1. Start simple

Don’t let worrying about how to start a conversation keep you from having one. Focus on two or three words that can set the tone for a friendly, genuine talk:

“Hey man.”

“What’s going on?”

“You OK?”

Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s not effective. You just have to get the conversation started. Get the person talking and respond to them with genuine care and concern. Being present and sincere is more important than being “qualified.”

2. Listen to their story

We’ve all gone through a tough period and can understand the power of someone simply letting us talk and listening to what we have to say. Do the same for your Veteran loved one or fellow Veteran. Create space for them to talk about their experiences and challenges. Make eye contact with them. Listen more than you speak. Don’t dominate the conversation. By normalizing talking about a struggle and being a non-judgmental listener, they’re more likely to open up to you.

3. Reshape the conversation from clinical to casual

When talking with a Veteran going through a challenge, make sure you show them you care about them and that you’re concerned about them. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Make supportive and encouraging comments. Don’t ask invasive personal questions.

Don’t inject emotion in the conversation. Stay calm.

Remind them you’re there for them.

Let them decide how much to share.

4. Think about exactly what you’re going to say

It’s smart to be prepared and even practice how you plan to talk to the Veteran in your life. When talking, ask questions like:

“It sounds like you’re feeling so incredibly (insert appropriate feeling here – trapped, overwhelmed, betrayed, etc.). Sometimes when people feel this way, they think about suicide. Is this something you’re thinking about?”

“When did you first start feeling like killing yourself?”

When responding to answers from a Veteran, remember simple, encouraging feedback goes a long way in showing support and encouraging help-seeking:

“I’m here for you. How do you hurt and how can I help?”

“I might not be able to understand exactly what you’re going through or how you feel, but I care about you and want to help.”

5. Invite them to meet in person

We all know from living in an increasingly virtual world that conversational tone and meaning can easily be misunderstood when you text, email or use social media. It can also be very simple to mask true feelings when using technology to communicate.

If you think your Veteran loved one would benefit from meeting up, suggest it: Let’s get together so you can tell me more about how you’re doing.” If you’re not able to meet with them in person, consider calling them on the phone.

6. Don’t be afraid to be direct

Though it may seem uncomfortable, it’s OK to ask directly: “Are you thinking about suicide/killing yourself?” If the Veteran answers yes, follow the steps below:

Inform them they can Dial 988 then Press 1 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line, or ask if they’d like to do this with you.

Determine if they’ve already initiated a plan to kill themselves or injure others, or have an immediate plan to do so, with access to means.

Try to find out where the Veteran is located and whether anyone else is nearby. Get them connected with another trusted individual if you’re unable to physically be with them.

For immediate emergency or medical assistance, call 911.

Remember: Asking if someone is having thoughts of suicide won’t give them the idea or increase their risk. Although many people may not show clear signs of intent to kill themselves, they’ll likely answer direct questions about their intentions when asked.

A conversation could save a life

For a Veteran in crisis, whose emotional struggles and health challenges may lead to thoughts of suicide, conversations and connections can mean the difference between keeping them safe and a tragic outcome.

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