Suicide and the Military
© Amy Menna, Ph.D., LMHC, CAP & Gift From Within
When someone commits suicide, it is a tragedy. When we are losing more soldiers to suicide than the Afghanistan war, it is an epidemic. In June of 2010, there were over 32 confirmed or suspected suicides among soldiers. Studies confirm that individuals in the military are at higher risk than the general population due to the conditions in which they are exposed. Wartime pressures are at a high, and soldiers are coming back from combat showing signs of psychiatric illnesses and addictions. These risk factors provide a cocktail conducive to thoughts of suicide. It is time to take a closer look at them.
This article is about prevention. It will detail some of the warning signs soldiers’ exhibit prior to a suicide attempt and will discuss preventive measures. This article is for everyone as it has been estimated that 65% (PTSD Research Quarterly) of the general population know someone who has died by suicide. Military efforts to reduce risk have been improved and new programs are being created. Suicide prevention rides on the shoulders not only of the government, but reaches to other soldiers as well as civilians. It is imperative that we are armed with awareness and prevention.
Disorders Commonly Found Among Suicidal Soldiers
The military has identified Post Traumatic Stress disorder, other mental illnesses and addiction as a predictor of risk for suicide. Knowledge of these disorders will equip individuals to identify when someone is at risk and provide the support they need. The following disorders are commonplace among soldiers who commit suicide. They will be explained in detail as to some of the signs and symptoms. Please note that meeting the following criteria does not necessarily mean that someone is suicidal. These are simply red flag disorders associated with thoughts of self-harm. This is not an exhaustive list of predictors and soldiers may exhibit other behaviors that signal concern.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may result from exposure to a traumatic event. It is the bodies and the mind’s way of responding to an overwhelming situation involving fear and, often seen in soldiers, the threat or witnessing of death.
PTSD is characterized by three clusters of symptoms: intrusive, arousal, and avoidance. All three of these need not be present to be concerned about the possibility of suicide among a soldier.
Intrusive Symptoms: These are symptoms that literally intrude a soldier’s life. They are thoughts and feelings associated with combat that come “out of the blue.” Intrusive symptoms may come in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, or negative reactions to anything associated with combat or the military in general.Arousal Symptoms: When someone is experiencing intrusive symptoms, their anxiety will begin to peak. This is a result of not knowing when the individual will experience the next intrusive symptom. This response mirrors the “fight” response to a stimuli. An example of an arousal symptom is an exaggerated startle response commonly known as being “jumpy” or “watchful waiting.” The soldier may feel “on edge” all the time as if something is going to harm him or her. These symptoms may manifest themselves in irritability or explosiveness.Avoidance Symptoms: It is normal to want to avoid something that is painful. Intrusive and arousal symptoms are painful enough to where the soldier may make every attempt to avoid the pain associated with them. This is the “flight” response. Avoidance symptoms include not wanting to talk about the combat or military experience, not remembering key events, “checking out” when reminders of the trauma are presented, or engaging in drug and alcohol use.
Depression is common in individuals who have thoughts of suicide. It is important to note that there is a normal depression that comes along with having a traumatic event in the past. This does not necessarily mean that it will lead to suicide.
Some symptoms of depression include:
Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness – feeling as if nothing will get better and there is nothing that one can do to better the situationLoss in interest in daily activitiesLoss of ability to experience joy and pleasureAppetite or weight changes – either losing or gaining a significant amount of weightIrritability and restlessness – tolerance level of stress is lowLoss of energy – feeling fatigued or physically drainedLow feelings of self worth or excessive guiltConcentration problemsChanges in sleep pattern – either sleeping significantly more or less than normal
Anxiety can be described as a constant state of hypervigilance. It is constantly feeling as if something bad is about to happen. Anxiety can manifest itself both mentally and physically. Symptoms of anxiety vary from person to person. Some individuals may feel more panic at certain times, while others may feel nervous about everything no matter what the significance.
Symptoms of anxiety include:
Feelings of panic or fear Feeling uneasy most of the timevObsessive thoughts Negative thoughts about the future Ritualistic behavior such as checking doors or washing handsProblems sleeping Sweaty or tingling hands Shortness of breath Heart Muscle tension Inability to stay calm Explosiveness.
PTSD: What Military Families Need to Know
For the remainder of this article and loads of resources for veterans, their families, and supporters