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What to do if a Veteran you served with is talking about suicide

Although we were trained to keep our cool in stressful situations, it’s still tough when we face them. After you get out of the military, the situations themselves may change. Dealing with tough times usually doesn’t get any easier.

One example is knowing what to do if someone you served with is talking about suicide. The key is being prepared and knowing how to respond with care and compassion. You can play a crucial role in providing support and making a difference in a Veteran’s life.

How to recognize a crisis

Some actions and behaviors can be a sign a Veteran needs help:

Crisis signs: These require immediate attention. If you or a Veteran you know are experiencing any of these and need medical attention, call 911.

Thinking about hurting or killing themselves right now

Looking for ways to kill themselves immediately

Talking about death, dying or suicide

Engaging in self-destructive behavior, such as drug abuse, risky use of weapons, etc.

Warning signs: These may indicate a Veteran needs help. If you or a Veteran you know are experiencing any of these, Dial 988 then Press 1 to contact the Veterans Crisis Line.

Appearing sad or depressed most of the time

Feeling hopeless

Experiencing anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness or mood swings

Feeling as if there is no reason to live

Feeling excessive guilt, shame or a sense of failure

Experiencing rage or anger

Engaging in risky activities without thinking

Increasing alcohol or drug misuse

Losing interest in hobbies, work or school

Neglecting personal welfare and appearance

Withdrawing from family and friends

Showing violent behavior, like punching a hole in the wall or getting into fights

Giving away prized possessions

Getting affairs in order, tying up loose ends or writing a will

Knowing what to say

You can support a Veteran going through a difficult time. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Make supportive and encouraging comments, but don’t ask invasive personal questions.

Don’t inject judgment or emotion into the conversation. Stay calm.

Listen more than you speak. Don’t dominate the conversation.

Remind them you are there for them.

Let them decide how much to share.

The first step in determining how you can best help someone struggling is to ask, “Are you thinking about suicide?” If they answer yes, then providing an appropriate level of support and connecting them with resources is the next step.

If they answer no, it’s important to follow up with them and help them with what they need. Asking directly and non-judgmentally will not put the idea of suicide into their head. Instead, they will know they can rely on you if suicide is ever a concern for them.

Here’s an example of a possible conversation with a Veteran who is talking about suicide:

Veteran: “I can’t go on. My life has no purpose.”

You: “I’m really sorry you’re feeling this way. 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. Have you thought about reaching out to the Veterans Crisis Line? Responders are available 24/7 and they’re trained to help you through this challenging time. We can call together if you’d like. I’m here for you.”

The Veterans Crisis Line offers free, confidential support. You don’t have to be enrolled in VA benefits or health care to connect. To reach responders, Dial 988 then Press 1, chat online or text 838255. Get more information about the Veterans Crisis Line.

Remember: If you believe a Veteran is at high risk of suicide and has already taken pills or harmed themselves, call 911. Above all, keep yourself safe. Never negotiate with someone who has a firearm. Get to safety and call 911, noting the Veteran is armed.

How to handle concerning social media posts

If you use social media platforms, it’s vital to know what to do if you notice content that makes you concerned for a Veteran. Here are steps you can take if you notice a Veteran showing signs of emotional distress on social media:

Shift the conversation to a non-public-facing tool

Validate their feelings

Find common ground

Be authentic and conversational

Provide resources for support

For more information and sample posts for each step, check out VA’s Social Media Safety Toolkit.

Everyone has a role to play in suicide prevention

When responding to a Veteran facing challenges, the most important thing to remember is you don’t have to be an expert, you just need to show you care. By asking a Veteran if they’re thinking about suicide, listening non-judgmentally and connecting them with resources and support, you could be saving their life.

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