Preventing Military and Veteran Suicides
By Brian Sullivan, Senior Fellow and Board Member
Recently an article was forwarded to me that spoke about nearly twice as many military members having died from suicide from July to September 2021, as died from coronavirus since the pandemic’s start. One hundred and sixty-three service members committed suicide in the third quarter 2021. That is a greater total than the number of service members who have died from the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. There were 70 active service members who committed suicide, 56 reserve and 37 National Guard. Suicides dropped among active members from quarter 2 to quarter 3, but suicides rose among Reserve and National Guard members.
Our disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan ended in late August ‘21, so my expectation is that suicide among military members and veterans will show an increase in the fourth quarter 2021. I hope I am wrong, but if the reaction I have seen in my Combat Veterans PTSD Group at the BrocktonVA is any indicator, PTSD is being triggered, not only among those who served in Afghanistan, but also among our Vietnam veterans, as they are reminded of our withdrawal from Southeast Asia so many years ago.
What complicates this situation even further is that the VA has just notifi ed us that face to face group meetings are now cancelled due to COVID restrictions until further notice.
This stresses my guys and their PTSD even further as the requirements of social distancing keep us apart and preclude us from the face to face support so necessary for battle buddies to be there for each other. So now the coronavirus pandemic adds to the stress already being felt as a result of our deadly Afghanistan withdrawal.
There is a song and music video, by Five for Fighting’s John Ondrasik, entitled “Blood on My Hands,” which captures the frustration of our military members and veterans. The complete lack of accountability at senior levels. The betrayal of our friends and allies. Lessons never learned, from the '60s/'70s to today.
The Veterans Administration responded by reaching out to military members and veterans with a message that, “You are not alone.”
The VA knew that military members and veterans might question the meaning of their service or whether it was worth the sacrifices they made. The VA knew that our military members and veterans might feel moral distress about the experiences they had during their service. The VA knew that this might all be a trigger for PTSD and that the pressure being felt might lead to an increase in military/ veterans suicides. After all, it is only normal that our military members and veterans might feel this way.
As a response, the VA encouraged veterans and military members to talk with their friends and families, reach out to their battle buddies, connect with peer to peer networks and perhaps sign up for mental health services. They also listed the following common reactions that military and veteran members might have: - Feeling frustrated, sad, helpless, grief or depressed.
Feeling angry or betrayed.
Experiencing an increase in mental health symptoms like PTSD or depression.
Sleeping poorly, drinking more or using drugs. Self medicating.
Trying to avoid all reminders or media or shying away from social situations.
Having more unpleasant military or homecoming memories.
Becoming overly protective, vigilant and guarded. - Becoming preoccupied by danger. - Feeling a need to avoid being shocked by, or unprepared for, what may happen in the future.
Feeling a need to expect and/or prepare for the worst.
Feeling distress is a normal reaction to negative events, especially ones that often feel personal. It can be helpful to let yourself feel those feelings rather than to try to avoid them. The VA recommends several strategies for managing ongoing distress.
Consider ways your service made a positive diff erence, the impact it had on other’s lives or on your own life. It can be helpful to focus on the present and engage in activities that are most meaningful and valuable to you. Such activities don’t change the past or things you can’t control, but they can help make life feel meaningful and reduce distress.
Try not to engage in extreme thinking. Most situations aren’t either all bad or all good. Engage in positive activities and stay connected by spending time with people who give you a sense of security, calmness or happiness; or with folks who best understand you and what you might be going through.
Practice good self care, like developing positive coping mechanisms that help you manage your emotions. Music, exercise, breathing techniques can all be helpful. Spending time in nature or with animals, journaling or reading inspirational texts are some simple ways to help manage overwhelming or distressing emotions. It can also be helpful to stick to a schedule for when you sleep, eat, work and do other day to day activities. Also, limit your media exposure, if news coverage is increasing your distress.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the warning signs for potential suicide can include: - Talking about wanting to die. - Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain.
Talking about being a burden to others.
Increasing use of alcohol or drugs.
Acing overly anxious or agitated, or behaving recklessly.
Sleeping too little or too much. - Withdrawing or feeling isolated. - Rage or talking about seeking revenge.
Displaying abnormal mood swings.
If you are worried that a friend , family member or fellow soldier or veteran might be suicidal, try to start a conversation to let them know you are concerned. Keep these VA suggested best practices in mind during your conversation.
Listen more than you speak. - Maintain eye contact. - Speak and act with confi dence. - Don’t argue. - Use open body language. - Limit questions to casual information gathering, as versus prodding.
Use supportive and encouraging comments.
Be as honest and up front as possible.
You may also want to consider limiting access to firearms, alcohol, drugs and sharp objects.
A soldier or veteran in crisis, having thoughts of suicide or those who know a soldier/veteran in crisis can contact the Veterans Crisis Line for confi dential intervention and support. That line is available 24 hours a day, seven days aweek, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-2738255 and press 1. If you prefer, you can also chat on line at VeteransCrisis-Line.net/chat. The Veterans Crisis Line connects veterans and service members in crisis and/or their families or friends with qualifi ed, caring US Department of Veterans Aff airs responders through a confi dential toll-free hot line or on line chat.
Hopefully, this information will help increase your awareness regarding the issue of military/veteran suicide and give you a sense of the warning signs and suggestions as to what you can do to help a military member/veteran in crisis.
About the Authors:
Brian F. Sullivan is a retired U.S. Army Military Police lieutenant colonel and former special agent, Risk Program manager, for the Federal Aviation Administration. He is a senior fellow and member of the Executive Board of the American Leadership and Policy Foundation. He is a Vietnam veteran, active in veterans aff airs and a facilitator for a Vietnam Era Combat Veteran PTSD Group at the Brockton Veterans Administration Hospital.
The opinions expressed by the authors are theirs alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. government or Central Washington University.