How to Help a Soldier Who May be Suicidal
Some soldiers may exhibit outward signs of suicidal tendencies such as the characteristics and signs described above. Others may suffer more silently. Neither category is beyond help.
Opening up a dialogue about thoughts of self-harm is imperative. It is important that the soldier get back to a state where he or she again feels safe and secure. If there is cause for concern, someone who wants to help should not only engage in some of the strategies below but enlist the assistance of a trained clinician as well.
Ask, ask, ask: The topic of suicide does not generally arise in casual conversation. If the soldier has any of the following warnings, it is important to ask whether he or she has any thoughts about harming himself or herself. Note that they may not be entirely truthful about his or her thoughts or feelings, they may working to reconcile his or her death without telling anyone. It is important to watch for the warning signs and intervene when appropriate.
Remember, asking questions like these will not hurt.
- Some individuals experiencing similar situations have had thoughts of harming themselves or committing suicide. Do you have any of these thoughts?
- Are you feeling hopeless about the future or even the present?
- Do you feel trapped?
- Have you ever thought of taking your own life attempted to?
Be willing to listen: Allow them to express their feelings without interpretation or judgment. Remember that it is reasonable to ask specific questions about particular feelings (such as, “Are you feeling hopeless?”).
Validate the soldier’s feelings: Don’t give a lecture on the values of life. Be prepared to listen and provide support.
Be available to them: Show interest and understanding. It’s vital that they know that there is care and support out there.
Offer hope: Remind the soldier that there are alternatives available.
Take action: Remove firearms, pills, and anything else that can be lethal.
Do not act shocked or ask why: Be careful not to have a negative reaction to their feelings or thoughts.
Get professional help: Ask a trained counselor to intervene. Professional support is necessary when dealing with suicidal thoughts. Do not agree to keep it a secret. Encourage them to attend counseling or reach out to their support system. If the soldier is referred to counseling, it would be helpful to have someone go with him or her. Be an active resource in his or her recovery. Offer to go with the soldier to appointments and follow up.
A Word for Caregivers
Caring for others can be a wonderful and rewarding experience. At the same time, it can be stressful. Caregiver burnout, also known as compassion fatigue, happens when individuals focus on others at the expense of their own self-care. It is important to note that anything that has to do with combat or the military experience can be stressful both for the soldier and those who love and care for him or her.
Signs of compassion fatigue can mirror what some soldiers go through when they return from service. Symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and addiction can all be manifestations of compassion fatigue. It is important that caregivers take care of their own emotional well-being in addition to being there for others.
Counseling for caregivers may prove to be beneficial not only to the caregiver, but to the soldier. If the caregiver is better equipped with knowledge and adequate self-care, he or she is apt to provide more supportive care. Dr. Frank Ochberg, the Founder of Gift from Within, has written an excellent article for partners of patients with PTSD. Find his article here.
Suicide is a serious and very real problem with individuals returning from service. The military has been responding to this epidemic, but the responsibility also rests on the shoulders of those who love and care for soldiers. Signs and symptoms of suicidal tendencies need to be taken seriously and loved ones must take action.
If someone you care for is a soldier—or anyone else exposed to extreme stress—please try to learn all you can about suicide prevention, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and addiction. There are many trained professionals you can consult. Below are some of the resources available on the Internet.
Through opening up a dialogue about this serious topic, soldiers can be provided with the understanding and care they need. Military personnel continue to serve this country on a daily basis. It is imperative that we serve them as well.
Amy Menna has a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and Certified Addictions Professional. She is in private practice and lives in Tampa, Florida.
- Psych Central’s PTSD Resources
- National Institute for Mental Health
- National Center for PTSD
- Military Pathways
- Military Family PTSD Resources
- Veterans and PTSD
- Depression and the Military
- Courage to Care – What Military Families Should Know About Depression (PDF)
This article Copyright © 2011 Dr. Amy Menna & Gift From Within. Reprinted here with permission.
Photo by US Army Africa, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.