If you know how to spot them, warning signs for suicide are almost always there. Signs can include an obsession with death, substance abuse, mental health problems, a sense of powerlessness, and financial or relationship problems. Many people, however, don’t put the pieces together until it’s already too late. This is especially true in the military because families are often spread out. No one who can gauge his or her moods and behaviors is at home with that Soldier every day.
According to Kim Ruocco, chief external relations officer for suicide prevention and postvention at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and a military suicide survivor herself with a masters in social work, it’s all too easy for family members to miss warning signs. “I couldn’t see my husband’s face or his facial expressions or what he looked like,” she said, referring to her husband, John, a major in the Marine Corps who killed himself in 2005 while stationed apart from his family. “I think that if we were living together, he would probably still be alive, because I would have been able to know how much he was struggling. It is one of the added challenges for parents who are maybe just talking to their son or daughter on the phone or spouses who have frequent separations.
“If (parents) don’t hear from their child for a long time, especially with someone who was in Special Forces or deployed, that’s pretty normal,” she continued. “Even if they start to get concerned about their son or daughter, they can convince themselves that they’re just out doing a mission. They may not see each other frequently enough to really see that they’re doing OK. Military men and women are trained to compartmentalize. They are trained to separate family and combat, and to separate their emotions from the mission. They can very easily hide the fact that they’re not OK.”
According to Ruocco and Mary Cima, a licensed clinical social worker who heads the bereavement committee at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia, family members should look for any drastic changes in behavior, such as no longer finding pleasure in favorite activities or meals. Sudden reclusiveness or any changes in the length and frequency of contact can also be warning signs.
“If someone has been sounding very down and depressed, it’s worrisome,” said Cima. “But if that person is suddenly sounding very calm and as though everything is fine, that’s often because that person has come to terms with their decision to kill themself and it’s providing them relief until they have the opportunity that they planned to take their life.”
Other red flags are disposing or talking about the disposal of possessions and talking about how the family can do with or without the geographic presence of the Soldier. If someone says that loved ones will be better off without him or her, “alarm bells should be going off,” said Cima.
“Get them help immediately,” said Ruocco, noting that “most military men and women who die by suicide on some level convince themselves that their unit, their family, their friends would be better off without them. They’re generally people who care about the people around them more than they care about themselves. The way for them to get over that sense of responsibility is to convince themselves that everybody would be better off without them.”
Even if family members aren’t physically present, Ruocco and Cima said they can call their service members’ commands, Military OneSource (800-342-9647) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) if they’re worried. Ruocco said they can even call 911 if the suicide threat is imminent. “I wish I would have called 911 and had them go to the hotel that day. If (my husband) called me and told me he was having a heart attack, I would have called 911. That’s basically what he was saying: He was dying.”
Editor’s note: For more information about surviving suicide, read “The ones they left behind,” “A death by suicide: What I now know,” and, “What parental suicide means for children.” For more information about preventing suicide, visit the Army Suicide Prevention Program website.