Live

Watch CBSN Live

Veterans and suicide risk: The warning signs — and how to get help

The suicides of at least four military veterans at Veterans Affairs facilities last month has captured the attention of advocates and members of Congress. According to data released by the VA, there were more than 6,000 veteran suicides each year from 2008 to 2016. Data published in 2017 found the risk for suicide was 22 percent higher among veterans.

The recent suicides come after President Trump signed an executive order in March mandating a veteran suicide prevention task force.

A combination of individual, relationship, and societal factors contribute to the risk of suicide, health officials say. Mental illness, including depression and anxiety, is also a risk factor for suicide. But it's important to remember there isn't just one cause.

"A lot of very smart people are looking at this and saying it's multifactorial. We don't really understand why there's such an increase," CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook said on "CBS This Morning" last June, after the suicide deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. "One of the things we keep coming back to when these surprising events happen is you never know what is in somebody's head."

Warning signs of suicide

Health officials recommend that everyone familiarize themselves with the warning signs of suicide, which may include:

  • A person thinking about or threatening suicide or seeking a way to kill themself.
  • Increased substance abuse.
  • Feelings of purposelessness, anxiety, being trapped, or hopeless.
  • Social isolation and withdrawing from people and activities.
  • Expressing unusual anger, recklessness, or mood changes.
How to spot signs of and treat depression

Health officials also warn about the possibility of "suicide contagion" — meaning that people who are exposed to a suicide or attempted suicide within their family or friend group, or who hear about it in the media, may be at greater risk of suicide themselves.

How to get help for yourself or a loved one

If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or thinking about suicide, talk to someone who can help, such as a trusted loved one, your doctor, your licensed mental health professional if you already have one, or go to the nearest hospital emergency department.

If you believe your loved one or friend is at risk of suicide, do not leave him or her alone. Try to get the person to seek help from a doctor or the nearest hospital emergency department or dial 911. It's important to remove access to firearms, medications, or any other potential tools they might use to harm themselves.

For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential.

The Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990, is confidential, free and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. People can also text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.

Veterans can also talk with a trained counselor through the Veterans Crisis Line. Dial 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone, or send a text message to 838255 to connect with a VA responder. Or visit MilitaryCrisisLine.net if you are an active duty service member, guardsman or reservist.

Talking about suicide risk

If you are concerned a loved one is at risk of suicide, talk to them about it. Experts say you shouldn't be afraid to raise the issue.

"People tend to tip-toe around sensitive issues like suicide. You shouldn't. You're not going to prompt someone to do it by asking them," Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, told "CBS This Morning."

If you're worried about how to start the conversation, Lieberman offered some suggestions.

Say things like "I noticed you've been looking down, or I've noticed you've said things that seem like you're really not as motivated towards life," he said.

Then ask if there is a problem or if there's anything they want to talk about.

"If they say something like 'I feel like my life is really empty,' say 'we need to get help,'" Lieberman said.


This is an updated version of a story that was originally published June 8, 2018.