Caregivers' Guide to Battling Suicide on the Home Front

Family Caregiving August 01, 2013 Print Friendly and PDF
Caregivers’ Guide to Battling Suicide on the Home FrontBetween 2005 and 2010, one service member died approximately every 36 hours from suicide - many categorize military suicide as the unseen enemy of war.

Between 2005 and 2010, one service member died approximately every 36 hours, not as a result of actions by Afghanistan or Iraq insurgents, training exercises, or automobile accidents—but from suicide. 

In 2009 alone, 160 active duty military personnel took their lives, making suicide the third leading cause of death among the Army population (Army Health Promotion/Risk Reduction/Suicide Prevention Report, 2010).

Many categorize military suicide as the unseen enemy of war. By definition, suicide is fatal, and in some cases, it can be attributed to a mental health condition, such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), alcoholism, or drug abuse.

In military settings, a cultural stigma is attached to seeking mental health care. According to the US Department of Defense, 43 percent of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who took their lives in 2010 did not seek help from a military treatment facility in the month before their deaths.

As more troops return home from deployment, the risk of suicide may grow. It is important that families of these service members become aware of the issue and learn to identify potential risk factors and warning signs associated with suicide. Remember, as a caregiver, the more you know, the more you are likely to provide the immediate attention and care your service member needs.

Understanding Suicide Prevention

Risk Factors

Several factors may influence a service member to attempt to commit suicide. As a military caregiver, being aware of risk factors associated with suicide is essential. These risk factors include the following issues:

  • work-related problem
  • history of depression or other psychological issue
  • family history of suicide or suicide attempts
  • serious medical problem or physical illness
  • recent disciplinary or legal action
  • significant loss (death of loved one or fellow service member within a unit)
  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • violence in the home or social environment
  • unsuccessful relationship or relationship strain
  • excessive debt or other financial problem

Warning Signs of Potential Suicide

If you notice significant changes after your warrior returns home from war, he or she may be exhibiting signs of potential suicide. The following warning signs may indicate that your service member is suicidal:

  • changes in eating habits, sleeping habits, or personal hygiene
  • talking or hinting about hurting himself or herself
  • expressing a strong desire to kill someone
  • indicating that he or she would be better off dead
  • obsession with death (for example, in music, poetry, artwork, letters)
  • changes in mood and behavior (for example, depression, irritability, rage, anger)
  • increased alcohol and/or drug use or abuse
  • isolation and withdrawal from social situations
  • giving away possessions
  • updating a will or otherwise finalizing personal affairs
  • problem with a spouse or partner
  • sudden or impulsive purchase of a firearm or another weapon

Caregiving Strategies

As a military caregiver, it can be hard to admit to yourself that your service member may be displaying signs of suicide. However, suicide has increased dramatically since the start of the Global War on Terrorism, leaving many service members at risk for suicide ideation and/or attempt.

In addition to identifying risk factors and warning signs, there are 14 strategies you can use to help your service member and yourself get through this difficult time.

  1. Do not keep your warrior’s suicidal behavior a secret—tell someone.
  2. Escort your warrior to his or her chain of command immediately.
  3. Remove any means that could be used for self-injury (for example, weapons or pills).
  4. Look for any signs that show a change in behavior.
  5. Do not ignore the situation and hope that it eventually will improve.
  6. Actively listen without passing judgment.
  7. Stay calm and safe—do not use force.
  8. Provide a comforting and relaxing atmosphere.
  9. Understand that your loved one might be in pain.
  10. Provide your service member with contacts for suicide prevention (for example, a chaplain or behavioral health professional).
  11. Be aware of how the service member's behavior is affecting children in the household.
  12. Consider individual and family therapy.
  13. Ask your service member's doctors or nurse case manager for information regarding suicide and mental illness.
  14. Talk openly about suicide. Be willing to listen, and allow your warrior to express his or her feelings.

Resources for Caregivers

If your service member is experiencing thoughts of suicide or exhibiting warning signs, take action immediately. Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for immediate assistance, or visit the Veterans Crisis Line website. The Veterans Crisis Line is available for both veterans and active duty service members.

For support groups and caregiver support services, contact your local Army installation’s Soldier and Family Assistance Center (SFAC).

For more information on suicide within the military, visit the Army Suicide Prevention Program. The program offers a variety of information and resources relating to suicide to improve readiness for service members and their families.

Consider participating in Applied Suicide Intervention Training (ASIST), a workshop for caregivers who want to feel confident and competent in their ability to help prevent the immediate risk of suicide.


Harrel, M., & Berglass, N. (2011). Policy Brief: Losing the Battle—The Challenge of Military Suicide. Center for a New American Security, 1-12.

Jakupcak, M., & Varra E.A. (2011). Treating Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans with PTSD who are at high risk for suicide. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 18, 85-97.

Kang, H. (2009). Analysis of VA Health Care Utilization among US Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) Veterans. Unpublished report, VHA Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards.

Kang, H.K., & Bullman, T.A. (2008). Risk of suicide among US veterans after returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan War zones. Journal of the American Medical Association, 300, 652-653.

Suicide Facts for Primary Care Providers: Helping Service Members and Families Overcome Barriers to Care. Retrieved March 6, 2012, from Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

US Army. 2010. Army Health Promotion Risk Reduction Suicide Prevention Report. Retrieved March 6, 2012.



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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.