If you are in crisis, please call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net

Connecting With Aging Veterans to Identify Suicide Risk

Learn the specific challenges and risks that aging Veterans face, and how to communicate concern to connect in advance of a crisis.

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Download the "Retirement & Aging" Fact Sheet

Use this brief fact sheet to learn more about preventing suicide in aging Veterans.


Connecting With Aging Veterans to Identify Suicide Risk

Retirement and aging can be challenging. Physical limitations may make it harder for some Veterans to continue engaging in activities they enjoy. Aging Veterans may feel down on themselves, or may begin to see themselves as a burden to family or friends who provide assistance in some way. Chronic pain or other medical conditions, isolation, and the death (or anticipated death) of a loved one are other life events and experiences that can be stressful and at times feel overwhelming. In some cases, Veterans may experience feelings of despair and depression, and may even have thoughts of harming themselves.

But by detecting stress in your loved one early on and effectively communicating your concern for their well-being, you can connect the Veteran you care about with help well in advance of a crisis.

A key step in suicide prevention is understanding the risk factors that make people more likely to consider harming themselves as well as the signs that indicate they are in crisis. It is also critical to learn what factors may reduce the risk that suicidal behavior and suicide will occur.

Who is at elevated risk for suicidal behavior?

Although risk factors do not cause a behavior or outcome to occur, they may be associated with an increased risk for the behavior or outcome. Ongoing research has identified the following risk factors for suicidal behavior: 

  • Male gender — suicide rates are higher among men than women
  • Previous suicidal behavior
  • Recent tragedy or loss
  • Serious or chronic medical condition or illness
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Access to lethal means, such as a firearm or pills
  • History of abuse or trauma
  • Family history of suicide
  • Family history of depression or mental illness
  • Family history of substance misuse
Rates of suicide tend to be lowest among older Veterans (ages 60+), and among Veterans age 70 and older, rates of suicide tend to be lower than among civilians of the same age group. However, more than half of all Veterans who died by suicide were age 50 or older.
— Department of Veterans Affairs, 2016

What are the signs that someone is in serious emotional pain?

While risk factors may increase the chances that a problem may occur, certain signs indicate that a problem may be unfolding. There are several red flags that signal a Veteran may be in crisis. 

Learn to recognize these warning signs of a mental health crisis. If you notice any of the following, get help immediately or encourage the Veteran to do so: 

  • Engaging in self-destructive behavior, such as drug abuse or reckless use of weapons
  • Thinking about hurting or killing oneself
  • Looking for ways or having a set plan in place to kill oneself
  • Talking about death, dying, or suicide
  • Saying final goodbyes to friends and family
  • Putting personal affairs in order or giving away possessions

It’s important that you talk to someone right away if you have thoughts of self-harm, death, or suicide. You can always contact the Veterans Crisis Line by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1, using the online chat, or texting to 838255. These services provide free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

What can help to prevent a crisis?

Researchers have identified the following factors as likely to reduce the risk for suicidal behavior and suicide in a person going through a difficult time:

  • Feeling connected (to a relative, friend, community, or job, for example)
  • Having people to rely on and to share personal experiences with
  • Having a caretaker role (to children or cherished pets, for example)
  • Having skills to solve problems and manage challenges positively
  • Believing in a higher power or having a sense of meaning or purpose in life
  • Being in good physical and emotional heath
  • Having restricted access to lethal means
  • Being willing to seek treatment