Suicide Awareness and Prevention for Veterans and First Responders
Suicide awareness and prevention for veterans and first responders is a prevalent issue in dire need of more attention. The conversations aren’t easy, but silence isn’t an option.
Suicide and suicidal ideation are grim subjects difficult to speak about, and this is especially true in veterans and first responders who become highly acclimated to putting others before themselves.
While an often admirable trait, this mindset can lead to feelings of isolation, and leave someone without the tools they need to communicate and connect to those they love when they need them most.
Suicide Rate Awareness
First responders (including law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical services (EMS), emergency line operators and more) experience more occupational stressors from their work daily than most of us are unlikely to face in our entire lives.
These lines of work are never taken lightly, and while they are faced with courage and compassion for others, what is seen, heard and done in those lines of work can have an insidious, long-term effect on a person.
Awareness is paramount.
While in active first responder work, first responders can experience suicidal ideation or urges because of the social climate they exist in all day having an effect on their mental health, but even after retirement or career change, suicidal ideation can continue or worsen.
According to the CDC, law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty by a wide margin, and EMS providers are “1.39 times more likely to die by suicide than the public.” (If you’d like to learn more about these statistics, visit the CDC NIOSH Science Blog linked here.)
The VA reports annually on veteran suicide rates, though with the nature of the pandemic the last two years, 2020 is the latest public report. According to the VA, it’s rare for the number of annual veteran suicides to dip below 6,000, and in 2020 alone there were 6,146 reported veteran suicides. (If you’d like to learn more about veteran suicide rates and the annual reports the VA has published, visit the Veteran Suicide Data and Reporting section under Mental Health on the official VA website here.)
What to be Aware of
Because there is such stigma surrounding suicidal ideation and feelings, you may notice signs of deteriorating mental health before your loved one actually speaks openly about it.
Some of the more covert signs of mounting suicidal ideation can include (but are not limited to):
- Violent, sudden, uncharacteristic mood swings
- Uncharacteristic aggression, rages, or crying spells
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Increasing use of mood-altering substances (prescribed or otherwise)
- Withdrawing from people, events and/or activities they used to love
- Actively avoiding interacting with those that love them
- Downplaying feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, grief, or alienation
- Engaging in high-risk behaviors
- Showing signs of despair very suddenly followed by the appearance that all is well (this is often a sign that the person struggling already has an idea for how they will hurt themselves, and it is very frequently mistaken for a sign of the person making a turnaround. If the change in mood and affect is sudden and very opposite to what they have been portraying in recent days, weeks, or months, take note.)
What to Do to Help Prevent
There is an abundance of information for the public to access in the VA’s National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide which is linked here, but the VA’s go-to S.A.V.E training is something we should all be more familiar with.
If you’ve noticed something’s not quite right with your friend, family or spouse who is active or retired military or an active or retired first responder, these same basic principles apply.
S: Signs of Suicidal Ideation
Relevant symptoms are listed above in What to Look Out For, but intervention is immediately necessary if they are openly expressing a desire to hurt or kill themselves, if they reveal that they are actively looking at methods of killing themselves, if they are discussing death, revenge, or suicide without prompting, or you’re noticing a sudden spike in self-destructive behaviors (talking about acquiring, actually acquiring, or using weapons irresponsibly, increased drug or alcohol use, or stockpiling medication).
A: Ask the Most Important Question: Are You Thinking of Killing Yourself?
“Are you thinking of suicide?”
“Are you considering killing yourself?”
“Have you had thoughts about taking your own life?”
“Have you been thinking about harming yourself?”
When asking the person this highly sensitive question, try your best to ask it in a way that feels natural, and not as though you are hoping they will answer “no,” — meaning, don’t ask, “you’re not thinking of killing yourself, are you?” — this puts the onus on the person struggling to comfort you rather than confide in you.
V: Validate Their Experiences
More than ever before, it is important that communication feel open, honest, and nonjudgmental.
Make yourself emotionally available; be willing to listen to them as they describe what they’re feeling and thinking, even if it is disturbing or upsetting to hear. Let them know you are a safe person to trust with their feelings.
Acknowledge the seriousness of their emotional state, tell them that you hear them, and that help is available.
E: Encourage Treatment and Expedite Getting Help
Do not leave a suicidal person alone, and if you have the ability to, remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
Depending on their readiness to act, be prepared to make moves, such as taking them to the closest ER, the nearest psychiatric care facility, their primary physician, your local crisis center, or have these resources on-hand:
The Life Line Chat is available 24/7 so at any time, call or text 988 or chat on 988lifeline.org. Veterans, press 1 when calling.
Text TALK to 741-741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7
Send a text to 838255 to access the Veterans Crisis Line or access other veteran crisis lines at Vets4Warriors.com
To learn more about suicidal ideation, signs and symptoms, readiness, treatments and prevention go to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or any of the linked websites cited in today’s post.
If you are struggling and you’re ready to reach out for help, Central Arkansas Group Counseling is available to you.
Please call us and set up an appointment, and we can help you out of that dark place you’re in.