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Veterans are at high risk of suicide. Here's what you can do to help save their lives | Opinion

Miami Herald - 11/10/2022

Few relationship challenges are more frightening than suicidal urges in someone you love. On Nov. 11, Veterans Day, it's important to note veterans are at greater risk for suicide than others. And, equally important, everyone -- from the federal government to veterans' spouses and buddies -- can do something to help them stay alive.

You might have seen the oft-quoted statistic that 22 veterans die by suicide every day in the United States. This number is disputed, with data released in September showing the actual figure is 17. Statistics aside, it's tragic that even one veteran ends their own life, let alone more than 6,000 in a single year.

Since 2001, the suicide rate among veterans has surpassed the previous year's rate every year except for 2019 and 2020. Preliminary research indicates suicides increased again in 2021.

Why are more veterans than ever ending their lives? One possibility is the extensive traumatic brain injuries experienced in post-9/11 combat. Research consistently links TBI to increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Many veterans face other pressing challenges, such as post-traumatic stress, addiction and homelessness. Each of these is also correlated with suicide.

The Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense both have taken on substantial initiatives to lower military suicide rates. Many programs center on safe storage of firearms during a suicidal crisis, and foster community connection and access to mental healthcare in the VA.

Here's what you can do if you're concerned a veteran you know -- or anyone, really -- may be considering suicide:

Talk about it. Ask plainly, "Do you feel so bad that you think of ending your life?" You can make clear you won't judge the person by prefacing the question with something like, "A lot of people going through hard times have suicidal thoughts. Does that happen to you?"

If the person says No, don't rejoice. People often say No when the answer really is Yes. In fact, almost 70% of people who die by suicide denied suicidal ideation in the week before their death. Ask the person if they'd tell you in the future if suicidal thoughts emerged.

If the person says they wouldn't tell you, ask why. People hide their suicidal thoughts for many reasons. They may fear your judgment, wish to not be a burden on you or worry you'll call the police and have them committed to a psychiatric hospital. Try to assuage the person's fears. For example, you might promise not to call the police unless the person is literally on the verge of ending their life.

If the person says Yes to thinking about suicide, learn more. Invite them to tell you their story. Listen without panic, judgment or attempts to guilt the person into staying alive. Help them stay safe and get connected to professional help, if necessary. You can find a good form here for making a plan to stay safe when suicide tempts.

If the person has access to firearms, talk with them about possibly stowing them elsewhere, locking them up in a gun safe or using a gun lock while they're in danger.

Call 988, the new number to the national suicide hotline if you're in doubt about how to proceed. You can press 1 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line, text 838255, or chat online. It's perfectly fine, even invited, to call for advice on how to help a friend or family member.

Stay connected. Call, text or email to see how the person you care about is doing. Make arrangements to spend time together, if your relationship lends itself to that. Ask if there are things you can do to assist.

There's much we don't know about suicide and how to prevent it. But we do know there are many things you can do to try.

Stacey Freedenthal, Ph.D., LCSW, is a psychotherapist and an associate professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work. She authored "Loving Someone with Suicidal Thoughts: What Family, Friends, and Partners Can Say and Do," to be published in January by New Harbinger.

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