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Use this brief fact sheet to help start a conversation with a Veteran who may be in distress.Download
Start the Conversation: Talking to a Veteran When You Are Concerned
The simple act of starting a conversation can be the support Veterans need to begin their journey toward feeling like themselves again. For a Veteran in crisis — one whose emotional struggles may lead to thoughts of suicide — these conversations can mean the difference between a tragic outcome and a life saved.
Some people may think that they need special training to raise the subject of emotional pain, and worry that they could make matters worse by bringing up the topic, but that’s not the case. You don’t have to be an expert to share your concerns with a Veteran going through a tough time, or even a Veteran in crisis. Starting a conversation is an important step that can help them feel cared for and valued, and recognize that help is available.
Opening the Door to a Conversation About Mental Health
If you notice changes in a Veteran’s behavior or moods, it’s time to open a line of communication. By starting a conversation about your concerns, you let the Veteran know you’re there, you care, and you’re ready to listen.
Here are some ways you can start a conversation with a Veteran you’re concerned about.
First, focus on your own observations and share your feelings:
- "I’ve noticed you’ve been acting differently lately, and I’m wondering how you’re doing."
- "I wanted to check in with you because you haven’t seemed like yourself recently."
- "I’ve been worried about you lately."
Once you’ve started the conversation, you can begin to ask questions like:
- "When did you first start feeling like this?"
- "Did something happen that made you begin to feel this way?"
- "Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself?"
- "Are you having thoughts of suicide?"
- "What can I do to best support you right now?"
- "Have you thought about getting help?"
Asking whether a Veteran is having thoughts of self-harm or thinking about suicide may seem extreme — especially if the Veteran's troubles seem minor — but it is important. Many Veterans may not show clear signs of intent to harm themselves before doing so, but will answer direct questions about their intent to do so when asked. If you are starting a conversation because you are concerned about emotional or behavioral changes you see, questions about self-harm should be a part of that conversation.
When responding to answers from a Veteran, remember that simple, encouraging responses go a long way:
- "You’re not alone, even if you feel like you are. I’m here for you, and I want to help you in any way I can."
- "It may not seem possible right now, but the way you’re feeling will change."
- "I might not be able to understand exactly what you’re going through or how you feel, but I care about you and want to help."
- "When you want to give up, or feel overwhelmed by emotion, try to just focus on getting through the next minute, hour, or day — whatever you can manage."
Conversation Starters: Do’s and Don’ts
- Be yourself. Try to be as natural as possible and show your concern by asking questions and listening.
- Remain calm. The Veteran you’re concerned about may show strong emotions or even lash out. Your calm demeanor can help de-escalate the situation and have a reassuring effect.
- Listen without judgment. It’s a big step for the Veteran in your life to speak openly about their feelings. Show them you’re there by being supportive and receptive to what they say.
- Be positive. Reassure the Veteran that help is available, treatment works, and recovery is possible. Remind them that feelings and thoughts (even those involving suicide) are often temporary. Most important, remind them that their life is important to you.
- Don’t argue. Avoid suggesting reasons why a Veteran shouldn’t feel a certain way, such as “You have so much to be happy about” or “Why can’t you just focus on the positive things in your life?” If the person you’re talking to is having thoughts of suicide, don’t say things like “You have so much to live for,” “Your suicide would hurt me,” or “Think about your family.” Arguing minimizes the feelings that the Veteran just shared with you and invalidates their emotional experience.
- Don’t lecture. Giving a speech about gratefulness and the value of life or supporting the perception that having negative thoughts — or even thinking about suicide — is selfish is not an effective way to get through to someone who is in serious emotional pain. In fact, lecturing the Veteran can make them feel guilty or as if they’re a burden to others.
- Don’t agree to confidentiality. If you think the Veteran’s life is in danger, at some point you may need to speak with a mental health or medical professional. To maintain open, honest communication and to avoid having to break your word, do not promise that you won’t share important information.
- Don’t blame yourself. You can’t solve someone else’s mental health challenges. The best thing you can do is support a Veteran on their journey.
Know the Warning Signs of Crisis and Suicide Risk
Though not all distressing thoughts and emotions lead to a crisis, if left unchecked, they could become a serious issue with time. Learning to recognize the signs of crisis and suicide risk is an important first step in understanding if someone you care about needs immediate help. Although many Veterans may not show any signs of intent to harm themselves before doing so, some behaviors — such as withdrawing from family and friends, having dramatic mood changes or deep sadness, or giving away prized possessions — may indicate the Veteran is in crisis and at greater risk of suicide.
The best way to find out if a Veteran you know is thinking about suicide is to ask. Remember: Asking people if they’re having thoughts of suicide will not put the idea into their heads or increase their risk of harming themselves. In fact, Veterans who are contemplating suicide may welcome the chance to talk about their feelings. Talking may also help them feel less alone.
If you know a Veteran who is showing warning signs of crisis, please call the Veterans Crisis Line, chat online, or send a text message today.
Try to remain with a person in suicidal crisis at all times until you can connect them with a mental health or medical professional. However, if at any point you begin to feel that your safety is at risk, leave the situation immediately and get help. No amount of love, care, or concern for someone else is worth risking your own life.
How to Help a Veteran Who Is Thinking About Suicide
Determining how to get help for someone who is thinking about suicide can be overwhelming. The following are effective initial actions you can take to help a Veteran recover from the crisis:
- Seek professional help. Call the Veterans Crisis Line for immediate, confidential support or use the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Resource Locator to find resources, treatment facilities, and VA Suicide Prevention Coordinators in your area.
- Follow up on treatment. If your loved one is prescribed medication, try to make sure the Veteran takes it as directed. If you notice certain symptoms aren’t improving or are getting worse, contact the Veteran’s physician immediately. Be aware that each individual is different, and it typically takes time and patience to find the right medication or therapy.
- Be available and encouraging. Veterans contemplating suicide may think they’ll never recover, so they’ll need someone in their life who can provide consistent reminders that things can and will get better. Be proactive about stopping by, calling, and inviting the Veteran to go out. Avoid statements like “Call me if you need anything” or “Feel free to stop by if you’re having a bad day,” which put too much responsibility on the Veteran and are too vague and open-ended to help them stay connected.
- Encourage healthy lifestyle changes, such as eating well, getting a good night’s sleep, and spending time in nature. Exercising can also be a great way to help relieve stress and promote mental health.
- Contact a VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator to help create a safety plan. VA’s network of Suicide Prevention Coordinators can work with Veterans and their families to devise a set of steps to follow if the Veteran reaches a suicidal crisis point. The plan will identify any triggers that may contribute to suicidal thoughts, such as an anniversary of a loss, use of drugs or alcohol, or relationship-related stress. The safety plan will also include the Veteran’s emergency contact numbers, including for their doctor and therapist, as well as family and friends who can provide immediate help in a crisis. Creating a supplemental list that details what you can do to help the Veteran if they are in crisis can also be an important component to preventing suicide.
- Remove objects that could aid in self-harm, such as pills, knives, razors, or firearms. Keep medications locked away or give them out only as the Veteran needs them if the risk of suicide by overdose is high.
Facts to Consider When Talking About Suicide
Talking about suicide will not give someone the idea of ending their life.
By raising the subject of a mental health crisis, you will open the door for a Veteran to talk about their feelings and connect with someone who can provide support. You will not give a person in crisis the idea to take their life by asking if they’re considering suicide.
People who die by suicide typically give a clue or mention considering suicide to someone else.
It’s important to take all mentions of suicidal thoughts or intentions seriously. Do not ignore suicide threats, even if they seem overly dramatic or like a joke, such as “You’ll regret it when I’m gone” or “When I’m dead, you can have my PlayStation.”
A person doesn’t have to be mentally ill to attempt suicide.
Many individuals who have thoughts of suicide or have attempted suicide are not mentally ill. Rather, they may suffer from grief or despair caused by an upsetting situation or life event. Just because someone doesn’t take medication for an illness or see a psychiatrist or other mental health provider doesn’t mean they aren’t at risk for suicide.
Even people who seem determined to kill themselves can be saved.
It is critical to help people understand that what they’re feeling isn’t permanent. Most suicidal individuals do not wish to die; they just want to stop the pain they’re experiencing. Even the most severely suicidal person may go back and forth between wanting to live and wanting to die.
Remember: You can make a difference, and it starts with one conversation.