When a Service Member May Be at Risk for Suicide

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

Suicide prevention is a serious issue for service members and their loved ones. Perhaps you have your own concerns about whether a family member or a friend in uniform could be at risk. If someone you care about is hurting, it's important to consider the risk of suicide. Knowing when a person is at risk and recognizing the warning signs can help you to take action to possibly prevent a suicide and make sure the person gets help.

Although no one is immune to the adverse effects of prolonged, excessive stress, some service members are at greater risk for suicide than others. Young, unmarried males of low rank and those just returning from deployment, especially when experiencing health problems, may be more prone to suicidal thoughts or feelings. Other possible contributing factors include lack of advancement, a sense of a loss of honor, and heavy drinking; approximate ninety percent of suicides are associated with mental health and substance abuse problems. Guardsmen and Reservists are of special concern because they often live in areas with limited access to health care services and may not live near an installation or the programs and services provided by the military.

Understanding suicide risk factors

Suicide risk factors are psychological characteristics, behaviors, or life experiences associated with an increase in the possibility that someone will become suicidal. The specific risk factors for suicide are generally grouped into three categories: adverse life circumstances such as the loss of a job or relationship; biopsychosocial ( medical and mental health problems); and cultural issues.

Life circumstances

  • access to lethal means of self-harm
  • suicides within the family/community
  • career setbacks or disciplinary actions, loss of a job
  • loss of or conflict within a close relationship
  • financial problems
  • readjustment difficulties following deployment

Biopsychosocial issues

  • history of abuse, family violence, or trauma
  • medical or mental health problems, i.e., depression
  • prior suicide attempt
  • impulsiveness, aggressiveness
  • alcohol and substance abuse (which can cause or exacerbate existing depression)
  • 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 support

Remember, risk factors do not mean that a person will actually attempt suicide now or in the future. When risk factors are present, however, think of them as reasons to consider the possibility of self-injury and learn the suicide warning signs and what you can do to prevent it.

A different way to identify risk

You can also assess suicide risk by looking for three factors that Dr. Thomas Joiner identifies in his book, Why People Die by Suicide (Harvard University Press, 2005), as essential conditions for suicidal behavior. Each of these factors has been seen in service members struggling with combat-related stress injuries or with readjustment after deployment. When all three are present, the risk of suicidal behavior could be quite serious:

  • the feeling of being an unbearable burden on family, friends, or society
  • a sense of failure in connecting with others and maintaining relationships
  • the learned ability to hurt oneself (through previous experiences with violence or self-injury, the person has grown accustomed to the negative aspects of suicide, such as fear and pain, that prevent others from attempting it)

Acting on warning signs

Suicide is usually a desperate attempt to end suffering that has become unbearable. With overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and isolation, a person may see death as the only remaining choice. Yet most suicidal people have mixed feelings about ending their lives, and (consciously or subconsciously) give off signals warning of their intentions. It is very important to take action when you observe any of the warning signs of suicide. 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; or
  • looks for ways to kill him or herself by trying to get pills, guns, or other means of ending his or her own life.

Seek help by contacting a mental health professional or calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if the service member exhibits 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, expressing that 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, take these additional precautions in addition to seeking emergency care:

  • Stay with the service member until help arrives. Never leave a suicidal person 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, and you believe the individual 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.


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