Recognizing suicide warning signs, stressors can save lives - even your own

By Division of Behavioral and Social Health Outcomes Practice, Army Public Health CenterSeptember 1, 2021

Top 5 Stressors Experienced by Soldiers
There is no magic solution or special indicator to determine when someone is suicidal. However, learning to identify stressors and act on warning signs can be the first line of defense for a battle buddy who may be in need of extra support during a difficult time. (Photo Credit: (Army graphic Illustration by Army Public Health Center)) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- You recently lost a loved one. You and your spouse are divorcing. Your boss is unfair and the job is tough – moreover, it doesn’t seem to pay enough to cover your bills.

Individually, events like these can cause increased stress and anxiety. We can understand how awful these situations might make a friend feel. But how do we recognize when that friend is considering suicide?

There is no magic solution or special indicator to determine when someone is suicidal. However, learning to identify stressors and act on warning signs can be the first line of defense for a battle buddy who may be in need of extra support during a difficult time.

Suicide and suicide attempts often occur following a number of stressful events and circumstances.

Five stressors that are common among Soldiers who have died by suicide or attempted suicide were identified in Army Public Health Center surveillance studies of suicidal behavior. These include relationship problems, work stress, legal problems, being a victim of abuse, and physical health problems.

Here are some fictitious scenarios that illustrate stressors and warning signs of someone who might be at risk:

  • Spc. Smith used to enjoy dating and social outings with friends and enjoying a glass of wine with her dinner. Now she is putting away a fifth of vodka every night, usually by herself. Her mother died a couple of months ago, and her last intimate relationship ended abruptly. She doesn’t hang out with friends like she used to.

Withdrawal from friends may be a sign of suicidal ideation, and self-medication with alcohol or drugs increases the risk of negative moods and impulsive behavior.

  • Pfc. Mathis was always a responsible and punctual guy. He was goal-oriented and very focused on his career and fulfilling his dream to become an Army Ranger. Recently, he learned he was not accepted due to an underlying health condition. Now he is often late to work and has been AWOL twice. He's also driving his motorcycle irresponsibly by cutting in and out of traffic and was seen by his fellow Soldiers drinking excessively at the local bar.

Major changes in behavior and reckless behavior may signal that a person is suicidal.

  • Sgt. First Class Jones was a hard worker and nurturing father. His wife had been threatening divorce this past year due to irreconcilable differences. Jones rarely shared personal difficulties with friends or family, but more frequently alluded to “mild home stress.” While he was generally a private person, others knew that he loved music and used to talk about how proud he was of his guitar. Recently, out of the blue, he tried to give his guitar to Sgt. Hopewell. Hopewell was taken aback by this event and noticed Jones’ seemingly sad and dejected mood. In fact, most of their conversations, infrequent as they are, now seem to include a story of some death he has heard about or someone losing something dear to them. He also made a few comments related to feeling helpless and worthless. These statements were out of character for him.

Comments like these and brooding on death may indicate suicidal thoughts. Giving away treasured possessions may suggest the threat of suicide is imminent.

Although Army leadership continues to implement programs and strategies, suicide prevention starts with you and your attention to the Soldiers you know best. Be on the lookout for changes in behavior and warning signs of suicide:

  • Increases in drug or alcohol use
  • More frequent talk about death
  • Mood swings
  • Reckless behavior or risky activities
  • Anxiety or agitation
  • Giving away possessions
  • Withdrawal from friends
  • Rage, desire for revenge
  • Hopelessness
  • Feeling trapped
  • No reason for living, no sense of purpose

Soldiers face unique stressors and challenges associated with their 24/7 jobs. Although many Soldiers are resilient to these challenges, for some, these can lead to adjustment, sleep, and other behavioral health problems. Early access to treatment can help, yet evidence indicates many Soldiers avoid seeking help because they are concerned that Leaders or unit member will consider it a sign of weakness.

Leaders need to emphasize that receiving behavioral health care or support is a critical strength and form of resilience. Leaders should also ensure access and promote use of other resources such as the chaplaincy and other social support services.

Listen to a sobering podcast for the 18th Airborne Corps by Dr. Eren Watkins, chief of APHC’s Division of Behavioral and Social Health Outcomes Practice regarding lessons learned and critical advice about suicide prevention to Leaders and Soldiers.

You may not know why someone is having problems, but if you see warning signs, say something. Express to the Soldier that you care about their health and wellbeing and that you’ve noticed changes in their behavior. Listen with an empathetic ear. Be prepared to connect them with resources or escort them to care.

For more information visit the APHC Behavioral Health  or Army Resilience Suicide Prevention websites.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and press 1 for the Military Crisis Line.

The Army Public Health Center enhances Army readiness by identifying and assessing current and emerging health threats, developing and communicating public health solutions, and assuring the quality and effectiveness of the Army’s Public Health Enterprise.