Strategy shows promise in preventing military suicides

People who serve in the military are about 21% more likely to die by suicide than civilians, but a leading national expert says one prevention strategy is showing particular promise.

“Thus far, the most promising results come from a treatment called brief cognitive behavioral therapy for suicide prevention,” said Dr. Craig Bryan, a stress, trauma and resilience professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at The Ohio State University.

“That outpatient mental health treatment has been shown to reduce suicide attempts by over 60% among military personnel,” he said.

The strategy, however, is not yet widely used.

“As of now, formal programs exist,” Bryan said. “This is, I think, an important direction for future efforts by the [Veterans Affairs], [Department of Defense], as well as the general community outside of the VA.”

“The majority of veterans who die by suicide are not getting services from the VA, and so we need to look at, ‘How do we get community mental health professionals to learn these lifesaving treatments?'”

One of the procedures used during the therapy involves a counselor spending 30 to 60 minutes with someone to create a crisis response plan tailored specifically to the individual who needs help.

The counselor asks to be told a story about a recent crisis and learns about the person’s life. Then, information detailed on an easily referenced index card includes warning signs of distress and a list of personalized strategies the person can do on their own to reduce stress. Also, there are instructions to reach out to others who are supportive.

“We’ve seen that this simple list, handwritten on an index card, actually reduces suicide attempts by about 76% as compared to typical mental health crisis interventions,” Bryan said.

Examples of warning signs that might be detailed on an index card for quick reference include:

  • “I clench my jaw.”
  • “I start pacing.”
  • “I get angry.”
  • “I tell myself I can’t take it anymore.”

Customized strategies listed on the card to ease feelings of crisis might include:

  • Watching funny movies.
  • Going for a walk.
  • Playing with pets.
  • Visiting with family members.

Bryan said that list on a card helps remind them what to do when they feel overwhelmed and can’t easily solve problems.

“Make sure to take time to do things that help us to calm down, that distract us from stressful situations,” Bryan said. “Of course, these things don’t always solve the problem. They’re not magic bullets that get rid of things. But what it does is it helps us to ride the wave to get through those tough times.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also serves the Veteran’s Crisis Line. Veterans or their family members who call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) and press “1” will be forwarded to the Veteran’s Crisis Line to talk with crisis workers, many of whom are veterans themselves.

“But they have all worked with military personnel and veterans and so have a little more familiarity with the population,” Bryan said.

Again, the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Veteran’s Crisis Line is 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up