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Always Ask, It May Save a Life
Suicide doesn’t care about your age, gender, rank, status or wealth. It doesn’t care if you’re a Green Beret, Navy Seal, a cook , a medic, or a logistician. Suicide doesn’t care.
When I was asked to write a blog about suicide awareness from my view as both a veteran with post-traumatic stress (PTS) as well as the spouse of a veteran with PTS who had suicidal ideations, I admit I didn’t know exactly where to start. Had I been asked to simply write about suicide awareness and prevention that would have been fairly easy, and straightforward. However, that’s not what I was asked to do. So I will try to convey my experiences.
I’d like to start by saying that I personally never contemplated suicide. The only reason I mention this, is because it’s important to demonstrate that having thoughts of suicide is not always a symptom of PTS. It could be due to something completely different. On the same token, PTS does not equal suicide, although many people think it does. In fact, I believe this was actually a factor leading to a delayed diagnosis of PTS for me. Now, I don’t know the reason, nor have I ever really thought about it.
While it is difficult to find exact percentages or risk rates for PTS patients that experience suicidal thoughts, it is widely known and accepted that there is certainly an increased risk. For me, it just never crossed my mind. I am grateful for that. The intrusive thoughts that often become overwhelming and lead to suicidal ideation were, and are, certainly present. I feel guilt, and shame, and anger. For me, though, I’ve always tried to “switch gears” when I became overwhelmed, and focus very hard on something else. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many.
My husband, who is also a combat veteran, did experience suicidal thoughts associated with his PTS. But, I wasn’t even aware of it until years later. How awful, right? I mean, I am supposed to be the one helping him and caring for him, and yet I missed the signs? Maybe he was really good at hiding them, or maybe I was too caught up in my own thoughts to think of asking him if he was okay, or having thoughts of suicide. I wonder, if my husband hadn’t had such a strong commitment to our family, would he still be here? Would I have been able to prevent a suicide attempt?
What all of this makes me realize, is that even though I knew my husband had PTS, and I had been through immeasurable hours of suicide prevention and awareness training over my 21 year Army career, I didn’t do the most basic thing for the most important man in my life. I never asked him. I could have. In fact I should have, even without any “outward signs” other than the fact that I knew he had PTS and was going though a lot of medical issues, to include TBI, speech and vision impairment and enduring the medical retirement process.
Now, I’d been trained for this, especially as a senior non-commissioned officer. If you know a soldier is facing adversity, whether it’s financial, medical, marital or PTS related, it doesn’t really matter. You’re supposed to sit down and have a candid, judgment free conversation. Maybe something like, “hey, I know you’ve been having a really tough time lately, is everything okay? Are you thinking of hurting or killing yourself, or anyone else?” They will usually tell you the truth, or so we’ve been told.
For some reason, I never asked my husband. I wonder if he’d have told me the truth. But despite all of the “would have/could have” scenarios, I did learn something, and I did become a better leader after learning that my own husband was once suicidal and I missed it.
What I learned is that no one is immune. So, always ask the question… it will not make a non-suicidal person suicidal. It will not “put the thought into their heads.” You are asking a simple question, not interrogating them. And when they tell you no, say “Good…I’m glad. I’ve been a little worried about you.” If they say yes, stay with them, and offer to take them to see someone they trust ... a counselor, doctor, friend, religious leader. Just don’t leave them. Stay with them, because you may have just saved a life.
Suicide doesn’t care about your age, gender, rank, status or wealth. It doesn’t care if you’re a Green Beret, Navy Seal, a cook , a medic, or a logistician. Suicide doesn’t care. And so, nor should we.