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Act when you see a GI or vet in turmoil

Members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) planted 1,892 flags on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on March. 27, 2014. The flags represented the number of veterans and servicemembers estimated to have committed suicide so far in 2014. The VA estimates that 22 veterans from current and previous wars die by their own hand each day.

In mid-May of 2013, I attended the funeral of a friend, classmate and fellow veteran. His passing marked the second time that year that a family friend had committed suicide. His troubles were many, and he hid them well. We spoke often and had many war stories to tell each other. I had seen him at least once a week at our Student Veterans Alliance meetings at a local community college, and he seemed to be no different than any other Afghanistan or Iraq veteran trying to find his way back into society.

On May 11, my friend was supposed to meet other Student Veteran Alliance members at the local cemetery to help decorate veterans’ graves with new flags for the Memorial Day holiday. When he didn’t show up, people started to wonder where he was and eventually notified the police of his disappearance. Later, his body was discovered in a local forest. This young man — a decorated Marine veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, husband, father and hero — had taken his own life.

We all were devastated. What circumstances led this veteran to the point where he could not go on? We now know he had some problems, just like all of us. Money troubles, family issues and the lack of meaningful employment, coupled with the stress of having been deployed, all probably played a role in his decision.

Yes, as military members, we all have been where he was. But what makes someone think he can’t go on with life? I don’t know if we ever will have the answers to a question like that. Having been in the military for more than 20 years, I have been to countless briefings on suicide and suicide prevention. In the aftermath of my friend’s death, however, I had many questions for myself. Why did I not see this coming? What could I have done to make it possible for this young man to still be here today, enjoying his family, friends and life?

In truth, it is possible that no one could have stopped my friend from taking his life. When someone decides he wants to commit suicide, it can be difficult to recognize the warning signs and get him the help he needs. But we need to be aware of the signals that someone might be contemplating such an action. Any of the following could be a potential warning sign that someone is thinking of committing suicide:

  • Depression. Individuals contemplating suicide experience many different emotions, including sadness, hopelessness and anxiety. Depression usually includes a loss of interest in life and the things that are happening around the depressed person. Major depression, when discovered in time, can be treated through medication and therapy.
  • Talking about dying. Those who are considering suicide will often think about various methods for killing themselves. They’ll sometimes discuss with others different ways in which they can die. They may also be thinking about ways in which others have killed themselves.
  • Sleep patterns. Someone who’s depressed and considering suicide may experience a change in sleeping habits. A depressed person may move from following a regular schedule to sleeping for long periods of time or, alternately, to becoming hyperactive, restless and not sleeping.
  • Concentration. A loss of focus at work or in school, as well as in extracurricular activities, may also be a symptom of depression. If you notice someone is not putting as much effort into life as usual, it can be a sign that he or she is depressed.
  • Change in eating habits. Many times those considering suicide will experience either a loss of or extreme increase in appetite. Depressed people may gain or lose a lot of weight over a short period of time.
  • Low self-esteem. Feelings of worthlessness and guilt often play a part in the desire to commit suicide. Someone contemplating taking his own life may also suddenly seem not to like anyone else.
  • Lack of goals. Those who are contemplating suicide will exhibit a disinterest in the future and in any goals they have previously wanted to reach. They’ll also seem to not care about current events happening around them that relate to the future.
  • Making arrangements. People thinking about suicide may start arranging for someone to take care of their animals or possessions. They may also begin giving away possessions that are important to them. Some make out wills to be sure everything is taken care of after they’re gone.
  • Loss of control. Outbursts of anger or sadness that happen without warning are sometimes a symptom of depression and thoughts of suicide. This loss of control may also include harming or directing harm toward others.
  • History. The loss of a loved one, job, relationship, money, friend or even religious beliefs may lead to suicidal ideations. The decision to stop attending events may also be a sign that someone is losing interest in life.

What should you do if you recognize the signs that someone may be thinking of committing suicide? People who receive support from caring friends and family, and who have access to mental health services, are less likely to act on suicidal impulses than those who are socially isolated.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask a relative, friend or acquaintance directly if he or she is depressed or thinking about suicide.
  • If you become concerned that someone you know is at risk for suicide, don’t leave that person alone. If possible, ask for help from his or her family or friends. Try to keep everyone involved calm.
  • Ask the person to give you any weapons he or she might have. Take away or remove sharp objects or anything else that the person could use to hurt himself or herself.
  • In some cases, the person is just looking for the chance to talk about his or her feelings and just needs to know that someone cares. It’s fine to listen, but you should then encourage him or her to seek professional help.
  • Call 911 or take the person to an emergency room.

Can suicide be prevented? In many cases, it can’t with any certainty, but the likelihood can be reduced with intervention. Research suggests the best way to prevent suicide is to know the risk factors, be alert to the signs of depression and other mental disorders, recognize the warning signs, and intervene before the person can complete the process of self-destruction.

For senior leaders, it’s our job to take care of the troops.

Get to know those serving under your direction. Ask them questions, and show you care for their well-being. Your genuine concern may be just what they need to help them realize that someone cares for them and that they will be taken care of should they enter a time of crisis.

Senior Master Sgt. Mark R. Lis is a production superintendent with the 439th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass. This essay also appears in the Air Force Reserve Command Wingman Toolkit.

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