Providing Care and Support for Veterans and their Families
Services and Connections that Promote Resilience and Wellness
The military is not just a job, it is a way of life. Unlike any other profession, the military is immersed in all aspects of a Service Member’s existence. Family, work, health, housing, and social structure, among other important characteristics of life, are largely impacted by service. Family members of those in the military serve alongside their loved ones, and often military service affects the entire family unit. The family structure may be damaged due to the absence of the Service Member – resulting in relationship difficulties, marital stress, as well as financial strain. Regardless of the military branch, there are inherent dangers associated with combat and non-combat service in the military. Physical injury and death, traumatic experiences, and resulting post-traumatic stress or moral injury, (distressing feelings following an experience that contradicts one’s moral beliefs) are some of the risks of service.
Veterans also have characteristics and experiences related to their military service that may increase their suicide risk or protect them against it:
Veteran risk factors include transition-related challenges, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and experience with firearms.
Veteran protective factors include resilience, a sense of belonging and purpose through military service, access to VA mental health care and care for substance use disorders, and positive coping skills learned in high-stress settings.
What personal factors can influence resilience in a Veteran?
- Personality type
- Sense of self
- Health and wellness
- Coping and problem solving skills
- Decision making capacity
- Experience with difficulty
- Purpose and meaning
- Communication skills
- Early history
- Environment and culture
- External supports and resources
- Personal, moral, or religious views of suicide
- Relationships with partners, friends, and family
- Connections to school, community, and other social groups
- Availability of quality and ongoing physical and mental health care
What personal factors can influence suicide risk in a Veteran?
Each Veteran in crisis will present differently, depending on their unique situations. They may not be forthcoming about struggles with mental health or thoughts of suicide. Having a conversation about mental health issues and suicide includes monitoring for risk factors. Based on information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, those at increased risk for suicide include, but are not limited to, the following populations: younger age groups (18-34); women; individuals who identify themselves as American Indian; those in a period of transition; those with access to lethal means and individuals with previous exposure to suicide.
Common suicide risk factors:
- Prior suicide attempt
- History of or current mental health diagnoses
- Misuse of substances, such as drugs and alcohol
- Recent loss
- Lack of or limited access to physical and behavioral health care
- Legal or financial challenges
- Relationship difficulties
- Homelessness or housing instability
- Access to lethal means including firearms, prescription medications, and pesticides
Common suicide risk factors specifically indicated in Veterans:
- Frequent deployments
- Deployments to hostile environment
- Exposure to extreme stress and death
- Physical and/or sexual assault while in the service
- Service-related pain or injury
- Invisible wounds (traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, etc.)
- Difficulty with readjustment
- Absence of social support
- Lack of positive coping skills
- Negative stigma around mental health
Based on data from the CDC, Veterans have an adjusted suicide rate that is 52.3% greater than the non-veteran US adult population. People who have previously served in the military account for about 13.7% of suicides among adults in the United States. In 2019, 1.6% of former active-duty service members aged 18-25 years reported making a suicide attempt during the previous 12 months. This was an increase from 0.9% in 2009.
Inquiring about suicide is important.
Caregivers play an important role in a Veteran’s life — sometimes a lifesaving one. Whether you’re the spouse, another family member, or a friend of a Veteran, you may be the first to recognize changes in mood and behavior, such as expressions of anger or emotional pain or increasing use of alcohol or drugs. No matter your relationship with the Veteran, as a caregiver you have a vital role in supporting the Veteran and preventing a crisis. Asking about suicide does not lead to thoughts of suicide. In fact, as a result of discussing suicidality, individuals who have contemplated suicide or have taken steps to act, assert that someone inquiring about suicide provided a sense of permission to talk about their thoughts in a safe space and in some cases, served as a deterrent.
Special training is not required to safely discuss the subject of suicide.
Conversations to check in about difficult emotions and negative feelings they may be experiencing are a natural way to inquire about mental health and well-being. Demonstrating concern and genuinely expressing interest can make a significant difference during a challenging time. Letting the person know they are cared for increases feelings of connectedness, an important protective factor against suicide. Willingness to talk about difficult emotions and thoughts of suicide reduces stigma around mental health and increases help-seeking behavior in Veterans.
In our communities, efforts can be made to support military members and families and help address common challenges they may be experiencing. Understanding the expression and influence of military culture, in addition to acknowledging common challenges faced by Veterans, are strategies that can help prevent suicide.
Ready to get involved?
If you’re a family or individual looking to get involved with suicide awareness and prevention, we encourage you to contact us and express your interest. Additionally, we encourage participation on our Facebook and LinkedIn groups, and solicit relevant contributions to our events calendar and news blog. Thank you for supporting this important and life-changing work! We look forward to hearing from you.