Suicide Prevention for Students Who Are Veterans

Risk Factors for Suicidal Behavior within the Veteran Community

Protective Factors for Suicidal Behavior among Veteran Students

Personal Protective Factors

External/Environmental Protective Factors

Know the Warning Signs

Suicide Prevention Starts with Understanding Depression

Common Concerns among Veteran Students Who Experience Depression

You Can Help

Find Someone Else Who Can Help

Student Support Numbers and Mental Health Services


In the coming years, more than two million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will return to the United States and enroll in higher education institutions. Veteran-students often have close relationships with other veterans and access to a number of support services through the Veterans Administration (VA). However, veteran-students typically face large adjustments as they return to civilian life that can be very difficult, including adjustments to jobs, family, housing, a lack of structure, and managing physical and emotional injuries. Veteran-students often are different from traditional students as they typically are older, have delayed entry to universities, are first-generation university students, and may have fewer financial resources.

One of the primary issues that veteran-students face is dealing with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after someone has experienced and/or witnessed a traumatic event. Symptoms may develop immediately following the event or could emerge months or years afterward. Symptoms may come and go over periods of time. PTSD symptoms typically differ for every student, but common symptoms include reliving the event (i.e., upsetting memories, flashbacks, nightmares), avoiding things or places that remind you of the event, including avoiding talking about it, feeling numb, and feeling on edge and jumpy. Veteran-students cope with PTSD in many different ways and could exhibit widely varying emotional reactions as a result, including depression, anger, other anxiety, disconnection, or distraction. With the help of mental health professionals, PTSD can be successfully treated. See the bottom of this page for more resources.

In addition to specific adjustment difficulties or PTSD, veteran-students face problems similar to those experienced by other students, including relationship and family problems, academic and career concerns, anxiety, and depression. Veteran-students’ problems may be compounded by a lack of support on campus. Suicidal behavior often results from the culmination of these stressors combined with depression. Approximately eighteen veterans complete suicide each day, and more than two-thirds of these individuals have not received mental health treatment. It is especially important to be aware of how veteran-students are coping and offer support.

Veterans also frequently have access to resources through the VA or other organizations that help protect them from risk of suicidal behavior or other mental health problems. Protective factors during active duty include training success, choice of military, continuity of tours of duty and assistance with housing and/or rehabilitation through Department of Defense. As civilians, protective factors include employee and transition assistance, rehabilitation, medical care, and others.


RISK FACTORS FOR SUICIDAL BEHAVIOR WITHIN THE VETERAN COMMUNITY

(*denotes most common risk factors)

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Hopelessness

  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies

  • PTSD or combat stress*

  • Adjustment difficulties*

  • Substance use/abuse

  • Previous suicide attempt or previous thoughts of killing oneself

  • Coping style in which problems are kept inside/unexpressed

  • Low self-esteem and lack of self-efficacy

  • Feelings of loneliness, guilt, shame, or inadequacy

  • Academic concerns

  • Financial concerns

 
  • Conflicts with friends, roommates, peers, or partner

  • Recent loss (e.g., death or breakup)

  • Social isolation, particularly from family or spiritual community
  • Conflict with parents and other family members about choice of academic major, career, or dating/marriage partner

  • History of physical or sexual abuse

  • Family history of depression and/or suicide

  • Easy access to firearms or other lethal methods*

  • Unwillingness to seek help because of shame in seeking mental health services

  • Lack of access to mental health care




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Protective Factors for Suicidal Behavior among Veteran Students

Protective factors are characteristics, skills, strengths, or resources that help people deal effectively with stressful events and reduce the likelihood of attempting or completing suicide. They enhance resilience and can help compensate for risk factors. Each person has his or her own unique set of protective factors, which can be either personal or environmental. Increasing protective factors can help decrease risk of suicidal behaviors, and students should work to maintain and increase these protective factors.

PERSONAL PROTECTIVE FACTORS

  • Strong self-esteem

  • Sense of personal control

  • Impulse control

  • Coping skills

  • Social skills (i.e., communication skills, anger management, etc.)

  • Hope for the future, optimism

  • Reasons for living

  • A healthy lifestyle, including healthy eating, restful sleep, and exercise

  • A healthy fear of risky behaviors and pain

 
  • Sobriety

  • Medical compliance and a sense of the importance of health and wellness

  • Attitudes, values, and norms prohibiting suicide

  • Cultural, religious, or spiritual beliefs that discourage suicide

  • Being happily partnered

  • Being a parent

  • Willingness to seek help and access mental health services




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EXTERNAL/ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTIVE FACTORS

  • Strong connections to friends, family, and supportive significant others

  • Strong social-support network

  • Responsibilities/duties to others

  • Pets

  • Opportunities to participate in and contribute to school and/or community projects/activities

 
  • A reasonably safe and stable living environment

  • Spiritual well-being

  • Religious involvement

  • Restricted access to firearms or other lethal methods

  • Access to physical and mental health services




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Know the Warning Signs

Although veteran students may vary in how they respond to suicidal thoughts, there are common warning signs that may suggest a student is considering suicide. In particular, it is important to notice and follow up when someone you know is acting out of character. An individual may be at risk for suicide if he or she:

WARNING SIGNS

  • Experiences feelings of hopelessness and helplessness

  • Reports feeling very depressed

  • Experiences anxiety and/or stress

  • Increases their use of alcohol and/or other drugs

  • Engages in reckless behaviors

  • Has physical symptoms

  • Withdraws from family, community, or friends, and from activities once enjoyed

 
  • Says things such as, “I don’t deserve to be here,” “I wish I were dead,” “I am going to kill myself,” or “I want to die.”

  • Is focused on death and dying

  • Talks about wanting to commit suicide

  • Writes poems, letters, or stories about death and/or suicide

  • Starts giving away possessions

  • Prepares for death by making out a will




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Suicide Prevention Starts with Understanding Depression

Depression is a condition that affects people of all ages, genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations. Contrary to what some assume, a person with depression may find it hard simply to “get over it” or “snap out of it” any more than someone with a medical problem can get over his or her illness. Depression can be passed from one generation to the next; sometimes stress or other life events trigger depression or depression results from a combination of factors. When someone is depressed, he or she typically feels a sadness that lasts longer than a few days or weeks, and this state of mind can be accompanied by thoughts of wanting to hurt or kill oneself. Alcohol and drugs may make feelings of depression even worse. Fortunately, depression can be treated.

Recognizing depression is a critical first step in getting yourself or someone you know the help needed. It is important to keep in mind that friends or loved ones may not know how to ask for help, so understanding what to look for is important.


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Common concerns among veteran students who experience depression


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You Can Help

First and foremost, take concerns about suicidal behavior seriously. It is always better to overreact than underreact to someone’s suicidal thoughts. Here are some things you can do when someone you know is thinking about suicide:

WAYS TO HELP

  • Listen and accept the other person’s feelings

  • Express your care and concern

  • Be empathetic

  • Try not to judge or argue

  • Do not allow yourself to be sworn to secrecy

  • Don’t act shocked by their plans

 
  • Never dare someone to kill themselves

  • Offer to go with the person to seek help from his or her parents, partner, or other family members, friends, a counselor, spiritual leader, or other source of support

  • If possible, do not leave the person alone

  • Seek support or advice from others



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Find Someone Else Who Can Help

WHO CAN HELP

  • Counseling Center

  • Resident Advisors

  • Office of Disability Services

  • Office of Religious Life
 
  • Campus Security

  • Family Members

  • Friends

  • Crisis Line



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Student Support Numbers and Mental Health Services

(Please note that these resources typically operate during business hours only; for 24/7 support, call one of the emergency numbers listed below.)

Emergency Numbers

Additional Resources for Veteran-Students

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