Suicide prevention starts before a service member is in crisis. Line leaders play an important role in shaping the way service members maintain their psychological health – and how they view seeking care for concerns. The tips below can help you create a command environment that promotes connectedness and openness around psychological health challenges. They can also help you recognize when a warrior may be struggling and how to encourage them to get care.
Create a Supportive Command Environment
As a line leader, there are several things you can do to create a supportive climate within your command. Start by fostering open dialogue from the top-down and bottom-up. By discussing psychological health as often and openly as physical health, service members may feel more comfortable reaching out to leadership and seeking professional help. To encourage help-seeking behavior in your command:
- Break the silence. Remind service members that challenges from military life are common and they are not alone.
- Share stories of success. Share your story or stories of other service members who successfully reached out for support and care during challenges.
- Spread the truth. Provide accurate information and resources to help bust common myths about seeking care, such as impacts to security clearances or military careers.
- Encourage seeking care early. Promote getting help for psychological health concerns as soon as they arise.
- Promote mission readiness. Emphasize that reaching out for help benefits the service member, their family, unit, service branch and community.
Identifying Those as Risk
Staying engaged with the service members you lead promotes a positive environment and builds stronger bonds. These bonds can help you identify when service members are experiencing challenges and need additional support. Be alert to the following situations that may place service members at increased risk of suicide:
- Loss of a close friend or member of the unit
- Setbacks in military career or personal life
- Severe, prolonged stress that seems unmanageable
- Relationship, financial, and/or health-related problems
- Current or pending disciplinary or legal action
- Major life transition (e.g., permanent change of station, discharge, divorce, retirement)
- Previous suicide attempt(s) or self-harm
You may also recognize warning signs of distress that can indicate suicidal thoughts or behaviors, such as:
Indirect Warning Signs
- Self-medicating with alcohol or other substances
- Sudden mood changes
- Changes in sleep or appetite
- Decrease in personal hygiene
- Social withdrawal
- Mentions feeling trapped or hopeless
Acute or Direct Warning Signs
- Talking about suicidal thoughts or thoughts of death
- Efforts to procure firearms, pills or other potential means of self-harm
- Making a plan or showing signs of preparation (like putting affairs in order)
If you see any direct warning signs of suicide, assist the service member in accessing professional care as these signs warrant an immediate behavioral health assessment.
If you notice warning signs in a service member, follow these three steps:
- ASK if they are thinking about suicide
- LISTEN to their concerns and remind them they aren’t alone
- GET HELP if they are in immediate danger or showing acute warning signs of suicide by calling 911 or local emergency services. Keep the service member safe until help arrives.
Always trust your instincts and speak up if you notice a warrior is having a hard time. Not sure what to say? Try these tips for starting the conversation [PDF 2.6MB] and connecting them with care. By offering support and reminding the service member they are not alone, they can get the help they need.
Suicide Crisis Lines and Call Center Resources
- Defense Suicide Prevention Office (non-emergency resource)
- VA: Suicide Prevention (non-emergency resource)
- NIMH: Suicide Prevention (non-emergency resource)
- PHCoE Suicide Risk (non-emergency resource)
- Military OneSource: Suicide – The Essentials (non-emergency resource)
- Suicide Prevention Tools for Warriors infographic [PDF 2.3MB] (non-emergency resource)
- Planning for the Worst: A Commander’s Guide to Suicide Postvention (non-emergency resource)
Defense Suicide Prevention Office (2014). Crisis Support Guide for Military Families. [PDF 2.4MB]
Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense (2019). VA/DoD Clinical Practice Guideline for the Assessment and Management of Patients at Risk for Suicide.
Department of Defense (2019). Department of Defense CY 2018 Annual Suicide Report. [PDF 959KB]
Justin M Curley, Elizabeth A Penix, Jayakanth Srinivasan, Dennis M Sarmiento, Leslie H McFarling, Jenna B Newman, Laura A Wheeler, Development of the U.S. Army’s Suicide Prevention Leadership Tool: The Behavioral Health Readiness and Suicide Risk Reduction Review (R4), Military Medicine, usz380, https://doi.org/10.1093/milmed/usz380
Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2019). 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. [PDF 1.9MB]