In a quarterly report released by the Department of Defense, the total number of service members who died by suicide across the armed services in 2020 totaled 689 lives. Of those, 173 were active-duty Soldiers, roughly 25% of the national total.
Matthew Younger, Army Substance Abuse Program prevention branch chief, said during Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month he hopes Soldiers and Families will take time to discuss the warning signs of suicide as well as prevention strategies to reduce the risk of this tragedy taking place in the Fort Campbell community.
Suicide can be a touchy and embarrassing subject, Younger said, and for that reason Soldiers might be hesitant to come forward if they are struggling with suicidal ideations.
However, Soldiers should know the Army has changed in the last 30 years, and the conversation surrounding the topic has transitioned to one of mental health rather than mental toughness, he said.
Although being viewed as weak or incompetent for admitting the need for help may be a real fear for some, Younger encourages anyone who needs help to work through that fear and seek assistance.
“There is no punishment for getting help,” he said. “They may think that they’re just a private or a specialist or a new E5 or whatever it is. They may think ‘Well, if I do this will they think I’m weak now or not respect me? Are they going to judge me?’ But times have changed since the 80s when we didn’t talk about it, this generation is more open and it’s not going to hurt you to get help.”
Starting that conversation can be intimidating, Younger said, but it is a necessary step toward getting the help that may save a life.
Not every Soldier who is struggling with suicidal thoughts will go straight to behavioral health or a chaplain to talk about it. Sometimes he or she may feel more comfortable approaching someone in his or her unit, Younger said. If that’s the case, it’s important that if someone tells you he or she is considering suicide to take it seriously, hear what he or she has to say and connect him or her with resources that can help.
“Talk with the Soldier,” Younger said. “The strongest protective factors we have are social connections. Just by talking to somebody and letting that person get their feelings out and letting somebody know that there’s someone actually listening to them can do wonders for a person.”
Knowing what resources are available is helpful, he said, and if you aren’t sure, ask someone else for guidance.
“There’s better behavioral health at all the brigades, there’s MFLC or military family life consultants who are certified social workers in that realm that they can speak with,” Younger said. “Unit chaplains are a good source to speak with as well or people in their chain of command. They may not be professional counselors, but if there’s an issue there’s probably a leader in that organization that has been through something similar and can guide a Soldier as well.”
There also are several suicide prevention aids that recently became available including “This is Our Army: Not Every Fight is on the Battlefield,” a suicide prevention campaign, and the newly redesigned training curriculum for Ask, Care, Escort Suicide Intervention, or ACE-SI, which is delivered by certified master trainers.
Being a good listener in these instances and knowing what to do are essential, Younger said.
See something, say something
Soldiers spend a significant amount of time together and so it’s not unusual to notice when someone’s behavior has changed drastically, Younger said. If this is the case and a Soldier thinks that the individual may need help, it’s OK to trust your instinct and be the person who starts the conversation about what that person is going through to determine whether he or she needs help.
It’s also OK, he said, to suspect someone needs help but not feeling comfortable with being the person that approaches the individual to ask about it. If that’s the case, it’s advisable to seek out guidance from someone else who is willing to open the dialogue for that conversation to happen.
“A lot of Soldiers may not feel comfortable asking somebody if they’re considering suicide,” Younger said. “It takes a certain kind of person that can come out and be straight forward and so if that Soldier doesn’t feel comfortable asking about it, there’s someone in that unit that does, and you should go find that Soldier and ask him or her to talk to the individual.”
Risk factors and warning signs
While suicide is often unpredictable, there are certain risk factors and warning signs Soldiers and Families can take note of, Younger said, adding suicide is not normally the result of a single event but rather the culmination of multiple contributing factors.
“Usually there are a lot of contributing factors, such as relationship problems, legal problems, financial problems, all kinds of things that start building up on a Soldier, as well as stress,” he said.
Knowing a Soldier is going through a difficult time can be motivation to sit down with that individual to discuss how he or she is doing or if help is needed to cope with the circumstances, Younger said.
Warning signs can be very noticeable, such as a major change in mood or personality. A person who is normally very social may suddenly withdraw, or vice versa. Or a person may begin to make statements alluding to the possibility of wanting to take his or her life.
“Usually when people start thinking about suicide they will talk about it,” Younger said. “They’ll use phrases like ‘you’ll miss me when I’m gone’ or things like that to start separating themselves from people and they’ll drop little clues. And if you’re not trained then it’s easy to ignore or overlook them.”
Not all warning signs are as overt or easily noticeable but instead may manifest themselves as things that may seem more normal such as a change in appetite, drinking more alcohol than usual, avoiding gatherings or being unusually quiet, but the best practice in these situations is to ask, he said.
“If things start adding up in this person, just looking at some of the abnormal characteristics and warning signs, the best thing to do is just ask,” Younger said.
If you are considering suicide and would like to seek help confidentially, call the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255. Otherwise, speak to a chaplain, a counselor, a Soldier, Family member or friend who can work through the process with you.