Resources for Understanding Suicide Prevention in the Military

A soldier walks through a dark tunnel with a light and tree filled opening.

Service members put their life on the line to protect our country. But serious risks may lurk in everyday life for some with intense trainings or as the pace of military life suddenly gets faster and for prolonged periods. And that can be even harder and more confusing to deal with as a loved one.

Suicide is a serious issue in the military. Significant life changes, stress and unique challenges of military life can make service members feel isolated, and some may be at greater risk for suicide than others.

You can make a difference in a loved one’s life by understanding when a service member is most at risk and knowing where to turn for help.

Learn more about when a service member may be at risk for suicide.

Times when a service member can feel added isolation or stress

As part of their network of support, it’s important to be aware of the moments in a service member’s life that can add stress on their mind or body. Service members do not have to be diagnosed with PTSD to be at risk for harming themselves.

Mental health issues can happen to anyone, at any time. Here are some points in a service member’s life when they can feel especially alone, agitated or anxious:

  • Around times of deployment or difficulty readjusting following deployment
  • Loss of a family member, friend or fellow service member
  • Career setbacks or disciplinary actions
  • Difficulty in a marriage or family life
  • Transitioning from military to civilian life
  • Financial difficulty
  • Major life changes

Some ways to be there for your service member in trying times

As a loved one, you know your service member best. Trust your instincts and talk to them if you think they may be having suicidal thoughts.

  • Mention the signs that prompted you to talk to them. Stay calm and let them know you are here to help.
  • Do not counsel them yourself. Ask questions and listen – but encourage them to get professional help if there is a threat.
  • Communication needs to be mostly listening, but ask direct questions without being judgmental, such as:
    • “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
    • “Have you ever wished you were dead or wished you could go to sleep and not wake up?”
    • “Have you ever tried to end your life?”
    • “Do you think you might try to kill yourself today?”

Resources and mental health help are available

Knowing the risk factors, warning signs and where to turn is the best thing you can do for your service member. Support is available 24/7 both for your loved one in distress and yourself. If someone you know is suicidal or in a state of crisis, the Military Crisis Line/Veterans Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day (1-800-273-8255 and Press 1). Crisis experts are available via online chat or text (838255). Or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

It’s important to take care of yourself when supporting someone through a hard time. If you also need support, contact the Lifeline.

You can learn more about suicide prevention through the Defense Suicide Prevention Office.

Suicide Awareness

Servicemember reaching out and helping up another.

Suicide is a serious concern in military communities; service members and their families deal with a great number of stressors. You can help reduce the risk of suicide. Pay attention to those around you — or reach out to talk to someone if you feel you can’t cope.

Recognizing the warning signs of suicide risk

You can help reduce the risk of suicide by offering support to those around you, and seeking help if you need it yourself. Keep an eye out for friends, family or coworkers distancing themselves from their community, unit or loved ones. Seek help if a person:

  • Talks or writes about suicide, death or ways to die
  • Threatens to hurt or kill themselves
  • Tries to obtain pills, guns or other means of self-harm
  • Suffers a sudden or dramatic change in mood or behavior
  • Expresses feeling hopeless or trapped
  • Begins preparing a will, giving away possessions or making arrangements for pets
  • Suffers from intense rage or desire for revenge
  • Increases alcohol or drug use

When a service member may be at risk for suicide

A service member could be at greater risk for suicide when he or she is having a negative experience or prolonged constant stress and if one of the following criteria is met:

  • Being a young, unmarried male
  • A recent return from deployment
  • Combat-related psychological injuries
  • Lack of advancement or career setback
  • A sense of a loss or honor, disciplinary actions
  • Relationship problems
  • Grief from loss
  • Heavy drinking or other substance use problems
  • Mental or medical health problems
  • Negative attitude toward getting help

Acting on warning signs

Suicidal people sometimes have mixed feelings about ending their lives and either intentionally or unintentionally signal their intentions. Contact a mental health professional or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 if you see one of these warning signs:

  • Feeling hopeless or trapped
  • Dramatic mood changes
  • Threatens to hurt or kill himself or herself
  • Unusual spending
  • Withdrawn from society
  • Intense rage or desire for revenge
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Tries to get pills or guns
  • Preparing a will
  • Talks or writes about ways to die

If you believe a person is in immediate danger of suicide:

  • Stay until help arrives. Never leave a person experiencing suicidal thoughts alone.
  • Remove any weapons, drugs or other means of self-injury from the area.
  • If you’re on the phone, try to keep him or her on the line while you or someone else calls 911, the Military Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255, or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Keep talking until help arrives.

If the person is unwilling to accept help, contact command or law enforcement.

If you or someone you know is suicidal or in a state of crisis, you can contact the Military Crisis Line 24 hours a day (1-800-273-8255 and Press 1). You can also start a conversation via online chat or text (838255).

Note: Military OneSource does not provide medical counseling services for issues such as depression, substance abuse, suicide prevention or post-traumatic stress disorder. This article is intended for informational purposes only. Military OneSource can provide referrals to your local military treatment facility, TRICARE or another appropriate resource.

When a Service Member May Be at Risk for Suicide

Counselor helps a service member struggling with depression.

Suicide prevention is a serious issue for service members and their loved ones. Stress that never seems to let up can affect anyone, and some service members may be at greater risk for suicide than others. Factors may include:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

  • Being a young, unmarried male of low rank
  • A recent return from deployment, especially when experiencing health problems
  • Lack of advancement
  • A sense of a loss of honor
  • Heavy drinking or other substance use problems
  • Mental health problems

National Guard members and reservists are of special concern because they often live in areas with limited access to health care services. Knowing when a person is at risk and recognizing the warning signs can help you take action to possibly prevent a suicide and make sure the person gets help.

Understanding suicide risk factors

As a community member, family member or close friend, you may recognize the signs and changes in your service member’s behavior, and that puts you in a position to offer help. Things to look for include:

Life circumstances

  • Access to a lethal means of self-harm
  • Suicides within the family or community
  • Career setbacks, disciplinary actions or loss of a job
  • Loss of, or problems within, a close relationship
  • Financial problems
  • Difficulty readjusting following deployment

Psychological issues

  • History of abuse, family violence or trauma
  • Medical or mental health problems such as depression
  • Prior suicide attempt
  • Impulsiveness, aggressiveness
  • Alcohol and substance use disorder
  • Severe or prolonged stress or combat-related psychological injuries
  • Overwhelming grief from a loss (death of a loved one, divorce, disabling injury, etc.)

Cultural issues

  • Limited access to health care
  • Religious beliefs that support suicide as a solution; negative attitudes toward getting help
  • Limited social and familial support

Acting on warning signs

Many suicidal people have mixed feelings about ending their lives, and, consciously or subconsciously, give off signals warning of their intentions. Call 911 or seek immediate help from an emergency room or mental health care provider if the service member:

  • Talks or writes about suicide, death or ways to die
  • Threatens to hurt or kill him or herself
  • Tries to get pills, guns or other means of ending his or her own life

Contact a mental health professional or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255), if you see any of these warning signs:

  • Sudden or dramatic changes in mood or behavior, including reckless or risky behaviors or changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Feeling hopeless or trapped, saying there’s no reason to live or no way out
  • Preparing a will, giving away possessions, making arrangements for pets
  • Unusual spending
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Intense rage or desire for revenge; anxiety or agitation
  • Increased alcohol or drug use

Keeping the service member safe

If you believe a service member’s suicide risk is high, do the following:

  • Stay with the service member until help arrives. Never leave a person experiencing suicidal thoughts alone.
  • Remove any weapons, drugs or other means of self-injury from the area, if possible.
  • If you’re on the phone with a service member who you believe is in immediate danger, try to keep him or her on the line while you or someone else calls 911 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Ask if there’s someone nearby who could offer support, and keep talking until help arrives.
  • If the service member is unwilling to accept help, contact command or law enforcement.

Learn more about suicide prevention.