Applying Psychological Science, Benefiting Society

We Lose Too Many Vietnam Veterans to Suicide: Here’s How You Can Help

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By Meg Lacy (Doctoral Student, Palo Alto University)

 

As our Vietnam veteran population ages, many may become increasingly vulnerable for death by suicide. Despite the fact that the Vietnam war occurred approximately 40 years ago, the moral injuries sustained are still felt by many who served our country. It is not unusual for Vietnam Veterans to have coped with difficult times by staying busy at home or at work. As retirement looms, it is not unusual for Vietnam era veterans to experience additional age-related risks such as social isolation, a feeling of burdensomeness, and changes in health status.

These changes can coalesce to hamper coping strategies that previously worked to manage mental distress, such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. Alcohol and substance use increases the risk of suicide as the abuse of substances, particularly alcohol, is strongly associated with both suicide attempts and deaths. So what should friends and family watch out for and what could be done in response to warning signs?

 

Warning signs:

In general, individuals most at risk of suicide are white older adult males who have health issues. As risk factors associated with veteran status converge on risk factors associated with later life , there are a few specific things friends and family should be aware of.

 

What’s going on in their life?

  • A major change in routine including retirement or loss of a job
  • The death of a spouse
  • A new medical diagnosis
  • A break up, separation or divorce
  • Not having a stable place to live
  • Inadequate family income

 

How are they behaving?

  • Increase in drinking or drug use
  • Sleeping considerably more or less
  • A loss of interest in things they typically enjoy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Impulsivity – engaging in risky behavior (running red lights, driving recklessly, looking like they have a “death wish”)
  • Becoming aggressive- examples of this are punching holes in walls, seeking revenge, getting into fights
  • Anxiety- worrying excessively about things they cannot control
  • Agitation and mood swings
  • Putting affairs in order such as giving away prized possessions or making out a will
  • Seeking out firearms access to pills
  • Neglecting personal welfare including deteriorating physical appearance or hygiene

 

What are they saying?

  • A sense of hopelessness:
    • “I have no purpose”
    • “I have no value”
    • “Nothing is ever going to get better”
  • Rage or anger: expressed toward people or things
  • Expressed feelings of excessive guilt, shame or failure:
    • My family would be better off without me”
  • Feelings of desperation:
    • “There is no solution”
    • “I just feel trapped”

 

What do they have access to?

Familiarity and access to a firearm makes suicide by firearm more likely. Any means by which a suicide can be attempted, including pills, is something that should be asked about. Veterans are more likely to own a gun and be comfortable using one making death by firearm a common means of suicide among this population.

 

How can you help?

Social support is one of the most effective protective factors against suicide (Cummings et al., 2015). However,  many veterans have isolated themselves and their friends and family struggle to talk to them. Inviting them to an event, writing them a letter or participating in a shared activity (building something, fishing, walking, etc.) are great ways to get things started.

Talk about it. Suicide is an uncomfortable topic but its best to be direct. Ask overtly if they are planning on killing themselves or have had thoughts about killing themselves. Just because they say no doesn’t mean that they don’t still have suicidal intentions so be sure to have additional information to provide such as a suicide hotline number for veterans, apps they could utilize (PTSD Coach), or a therapist’s contact information.

If your loved one has a plan or tell you they are going to kill themselves, call 911. Its better to put their safety first. Demonstrating your support by seeking additional help is always best. If you can, include them in the process of seeking immediate help. Calling 911 or visiting the ER does not have to be a one-sided decision.

These by no means are the only risk factors, signs or solutions for suicidality. However, engagement with friends and family has shown to be extremely effective against suicide. Demonstrating your support with regular calls or visits is an important step toward safety for many veterans.

 

Related Resources:

Veterans Crisis Line

APA Psychology Topic: Suicide

Resources for Caregivers of Service Members and Veterans

When Will We Face the Facts about Suicide in Older Men?

APA Trauma Psychology Division Video on Trauma and PTSD in Older Adults

 

References:

 

Chronic PTSD in Vietnam combat veterans: Course of illness and substance abuse (1996). American Journal of Psychiatry, 153(3), 369–375. doi:10.1176/ajp.153.3.369

Conner, K. R., Britton, P. C., Sworts, L. M., & Joiner, T. E. (2007). Suicide attempts among individuals with opiate dependence: The critical role of belonging. Addictive Behaviors, 32(7), 1395–1404. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2006.09.012

Conwell, Y., Van Orden, K., & Caine, E. D. (2011). Suicide in older adults. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America , 34(2), . Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3107573/

Cummins, N., Scherer, S., Krajewski, J., Schnieder, S., Epps, J., & Quatieri, T. F. (2015). A review of depression and suicide risk assessment using speech analysis. Speech Communication, 71, 10–49. doi:10.1016/j.specom.2015.03.004

Identifying signs of crisis. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/SignsOfCrisis/Identifying.aspx

Lambert, M. T., & Fowler, R. D. (1997). Suicide risk factors among veterans: Risk management in the changing culture of the department of veterans affairs. The Journal of Mental Health Administration, 24(3), 350–358. doi:10.1007/bf02832668

Lester, D. (2003). Unemployment and suicidal behaviour. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 57(8), 558–559. doi:10.1136/jech.57.8.558

Military Suicide Research Consortium (MSRC) Newsroom. (2017, January 28). Retrieved February 26, 2017, from https://msrc.fsu.edu/news/study-reveals-top-reason-behind-soldiers-suicides

Nademin, E., Jobes, D. A., Pflanz, S. E., Jacoby, A. M., Ghahramanlou-Holloway, M., Campise, R., Johnson, L. (2008). An investigation of interpersonal-psychological variables in air force suicides: A controlled-comparison study. Archives of Suicide Research, 12(4), 309–326. doi:10.1080/13811110802324847

Price, J. L. (2016, February 23). Findings from the national Vietnam veterans’ readjustment study. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/research-bio/research/vietnam-vets-study.asp

United States Department of Veterans Affairs. (July, 2016) VA Suicide Prevention Program: Facts about Veteran Suicide. Retrieved from https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/factsheets/Suicide_Prevention_FactSheet_New_VA_Stats_070616_1400.pdf

Van Orden, K. A., Witte, T. K., Gordon, K. H., Bender, T. W., & Joiner, T. E. (2008). Suicidal desire and the capability for suicide: Tests of the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior among adults. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(1), 72–83. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.76.1.72

Van Orden, K. A., Witte, T. K., Cukrowicz, K. C., Braithwaite, S. R., Selby, E. A., & Joiner Jr, E. (2010). The interpersonal theory of suicide. Psychological review117(2), 575.

Warning signs of crisis. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/SignsOfCrisis/

 

Biography:

Meg Lacy is a first year doctoral student at Palo Alto University. She is interested in researching early intervention to trauma in combat soldiers and amongst first responders. Additionally, she is interested in the veteran population and suicide prevention.

Image source: Flickr user Elvert Barnes via Creative Commons

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Categorised in: Aging, Violence

5 Responses »

  1. This is a great article, and very important issue. Though not a veteran, I lost a close family member to suicide and I wish we had been more aware of the warning signs before it was too late.

    Like

  2. This is very helpful. I hope people are also aware of the support provided 24/7 by the Veteran’s Crisis Line and Chat Service. http://www.veteranscrisisline.net Here is an excerpt from that website:

    The Veterans Crisis Line connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Support for deaf and hard of hearing individuals is available.

    Like

  3. We can make a difference if we all care about each other. Vets need to feel wanted and they need to have a purpose so including them in activities that they enjoy is important

    Like

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