Top 5 Suicide Awareness Tips for Army Leaders

In March 2009, in response to a growing number of Army suicides, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army released the Army Campaign Plan for Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention (ACPHP), and chartered the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force (ASPTF) and the Army Suicide Prevention Council (ASPC).  Since that time, the Army has invested tremendous effort in investigating the causes of suicide within its ranks and in implementing policies and programs whose sole purpose is to promote resilience, prevent suicides, and enhance the readiness of the Force. The challenge of suicide remains a deep concern of the Army and our Nation as a whole.

Suicide is one of the leading cause of death among Veterans and Soldiers within our ranks. However, suicide is preventable. Soldiers who are contemplating suicide frequently give warning signs of their distress. Leaders, peer Soldiers and family members are in a key position to pick up on these signs and get help. Most important is to never take these warning signs lightly or promise to keep them secret. When all Soldiers in the unit are committed to making suicide prevention a priority—and are empowered to take the correct actions—we can help youth before they engage in behavior with irreversible consequences.  Here are my (and the Army’s) Top 5 Suicide Awareness Tips for Army Leaders. 

This may seems obvious but one key to suicide prevent it to be aware of the warning signs.  People who are considering suicide often show signs of depression, anxiety, or some form of crisis in their overall self-esteem. Specific signs include:

  •  Appearing sad or depressed most of the time, deep sadness, loss of interest, trouble sleeping and eating – that doesn’t go away or that continues to get worse.
  • Feeling anxious, agitated, or unable to sleep, or sleeping all the time.
  • Neglecting personal welfare; deteriorating physical appearance.  Withdrawing from friends, family, and society.
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, work, school, or other things one used to care about.
  • Frequent and dramatic mood changes.
  • Expressing feelings of excessive guilt or shame.
  • Feelings of failure or decreased performance.

Being aware and educated about the warning signs displayed by Soldiers who are thinking about suicide is the most critical and important aspect of suicide prevention.

My second tip would be to know what resources you have available to you and to educate your Soldiers.  As a Leader, the buck stops with you but chances are that your Soldiers are better acquainted outside of drill than you are to them.  Educate every single Soldier about the resources available and who to contact if they even think that another Soldier is thinking about suicide or displaying warning signs.  For example, the PAARNG has specific liaison representatives on either side of the state on 24/7 call for suicide crisis intervention.  Additionally, our Chaplin is available around the clock as well.  Soldiers need to know who to call because chances are they are going to be the ones seeing the warning signs than you will be.

Units who want to prevent suicide within their ranks take time to conduct resiliency training.  The presence of resiliency factors and resilient thinking can lessen the potential of risk factors that lead to suicidal ideation and behaviors.  Such resiliency resources could include:

  • Unit support and cohesion, including good communication.
  • Peer Soldier support and close networks.
  • Unit and family connectedness.
  • Cultural or religious beliefs that discourage suicide and promote healthy living.
  • Adaptive coping and problem-solving skills, including conflict-resolution.
  • General life satisfaction, good self-esteem, sense of purpose.
  • Easy access to effective medical and mental health resources. 

The Army’s Ask, Care, Escort or ACE suicide prevention program is recognized throughout many mental health and medical organizations as one the best intervention practice.  ACE is simply step-by-step instructions to your leaders and Soldiers on what to do if they discover someone to be suicidal.  Make sure to have plenty of ACE resources in your Unit and throughout your leadership.  ACE cards are a great, simple tool that helps Soldiers, not only know what to do if they encounter a suicidal Soldier, but also provides those looking for help a simple way of letting someone know.  

Lastly, it is important to know the common misconceptions about suicide and how to separate what you know (from training, etc.) from what you think you know.  For example:

  • FALSE: People who talk about suicide won’t really do it. 
    Almost everyone who commits or attempts suicide has given some clue or warning. Do not ignore suicide threats. Statements like “you’ll be sorry when I’m dead,” “I can’t see any way out,” — no matter how casually or jokingly said may indicate serious suicidal feelings.
  • FALSE: Anyone who tries to kill him/herself must be crazy. 
    Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane. They must be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing, but extreme distress and emotional pain are not necessarily signs of mental illness.
  • FALSE: If a person is determined to kill him/herself, nothing is going to stop them. 
    Even the most severely depressed person has mixed feelings about death, wavering until the very last moment between wanting to live and wanting to die. Most suicidal people do not want death; they want the pain to stop. The impulse to end it all, however overpowering, does not last forever.
  • FALSE: People who commit suicide are people who were unwilling to seek help. 
    Studies of suicide victims have shown that more than half had sought medical help in the six months prior to their deaths.
  • FALSE: Talking about suicide may give someone the idea. 
    You don’t give a suicidal person morbid ideas by talking about suicide. The opposite is true — bringing up the subject of suicide and discussing it openly is one of the most helpful things you can do.

Final Thoughts

The bottom line is to educate yourself about Suicide Awareness and know what resources are available to you and your Soldiers.  Most suicides can be prevented if everyone keeps an open eye and ear and looks out for their buddies.

What are your thoughts?  What do you think are the best suicide awareness tips for Army leaders?  Leave a comment and let us know.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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12 thoughts on “Top 5 Suicide Awareness Tips for Army Leaders”

  1. I think Greg’s point in his comment is very valid and is often overlooked in the general comraderie of being deployment buddies and drinking buddies. Way too often depression leads to self-medication with drinking and drugs. If you have a squad mate who seems to be always wanting to get drunk, sound him out and help him or her get help before it’s too late. Regular drinking to the point of drunkenness can be another symptom that friends just don’t think of. They tend to think it’s just one of those things that makes Sgt. Joe so much fun to be around.

  2. Although it’s certainly not the most upbeat topic, it’s one that needs to be discussed. Suicide IS preventable – and it should be at all costs. We need to watch out for our servicemen and women (and others as well), as suicide is one of the saddest ordeals our world deals with. There’s no reason to take one’s own life, and watching for the signs and helping those that need it is crucial.

  3. I am certain this was not an easy post to write. It is never an easy subject to talk about. Unfortunately I know too many people who have committed suicide. Not always preventable – sometimes people do something rash and they can’t hit the reset button once it’s done. I also know too many people who have been deployed over and over again. By the time they detune and try to find some normalcy they are headed back into the suck. This affects their psyche, perceptions and family life. Having a knowledgeable mentor and plentiful resources will save lives.

    1. Multiple deployments can definitely cause hardships. Some Soldiers deal with it well and others don’t. Everyone is different. Some people enjoy combat, and other people can’t even handle a year long peace keeping mission. The real key is awareness. The Army needs to keep developing programs to help Soldiers when they return. Anything they can to do mitigate suicide will help.

  4. Suicide is serious business. I have also seen a rate grow among those returning home from overseas. In many cases, their stable home had become unstable and it seemed there was no one to help. Many soldiers feel drinking or drugs are an answer, but they just intensify the effects. Peers seem to “blow off” warning signs with , “just drink some more beer.” I believe the Armed Forces need to really look hard at the situations of those who are coming home after a long deployment. If they would study the statistics, I believe they would find they are the most prone to committing suicide.

    1. Coming home from deployments is tough on a lot of Soldiers. In many cases, their spouse had an affair or has left. Sometimes, they’ve lost their job. Their steady paycheck might disappear. And sometimes the worst part is they’ve lost their sense of belonging. Even worse, lots of these Soldiers feel alone and don’t have their buddies around them like they did when they deployed.

      This is something the Army needs to keep focusing on!

  5. Candace Ginestar

    We had a Soldier take his life the holiday season right before we deployed. It wasn’t the last time I experienced this, but since that was the first, it still hits the hardest. Once the Resilience program came about, I knew it was the future of the Army. This is why I dedicated my graduate studies to it and waited patiently to go to MRT (Finally got back from it just the other week!). I was recommended to go to level 2 training and I hope that I can make this a big part of my career. As corny as some of the stuff may sound, it really does work, and any little thing that can help a Soldier BEFORE they get to the point of no return is worth it to me.

    1. Suicides are tough, and they’re getting more and more common today. It’s never easy to deal with, especially when it’s someone you know or love. I think the Army is creating programs and doing a better job dealing with this. The truth is: the Army is a big organization. No matter what they do, there will always be some suicides. They can keep doing things to mitigate it, but it will never totally go away.

  6. With the holiday season quickly approaching, small unit leaders need to pay extra attention to their Soldiers. While this is a great time of year for most people, there are normally higher rates of depression and loneliness during the holidays. Make it a point to be in touch with your Soldiers and know what is going on. Look for signs such as mood swings and sadness. If you see a Soldier who needs help, help them or get them some help. Also, this is a good time of year to invite your single Soldiers over to your house for a nice meal and fellowship. Just my thoughts.

    1. You really hit on something here I just need to elaborate further on Chuck; leaders need to “know” their soldiers. These men and women are not just a number. They have stress and anxieties that many leaders have no clue about. If leaders would get to know them better, they may be able to see the warning signs easier.

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