PTSD and Suicidal Ideation in Veterans

Trauma, PTSD, and suicidal ideation are all related. Understanding these relationships in veterans can help save a life. Helping someone who is feeling suicidal can be a daunting process. Always remember that your actions can potentially save a life. If you suspect someone’s feeling suicidal ideation, the best thing you can do is ask them directly. It’s a common misconception that this will cause further harm, but this is false. 

What Can I Do? I’m Thinking About Suicide

If you’re ever dealing with thoughts of suicide, it’s time to reach out for help. 

For Immediate Assistance:

Veteran Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988 + 1

Every person feels low at times. But there are many different forms of help. If you have specific thoughts of hurting yourself, seek professional help immediately. 

I Know Someone Is Suicidal 

Perhaps you have a family member, friend, or coworker thinking about suicide. It can feel overwhelming when someone shares these thoughts with you, and you might be unsure what action to take. This can be difficult when the person who shares asks you not to tell anyone else. Suicide is a severe matter, and gauging the level of danger, someone’s in can be challenging. 

What To Do: 

Speaking to a mental health professional is the best way to determine the danger level in any particular situation. 

Once you’ve spoken to a professional counselor, you may also try the following: 

  • Staying calm and speaking to the person thinking of suicide about local mental health treatment options. 
  • Offer to help them call or sit with them as they call a treatment center. This first step is often the most difficult for people to accomplish alone. 
  • See the phone numbers above for additional support. Helping someone can be difficult, but one of the worst things you can do in this situation ignores the problem. 

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that can occur in those who’ve witnessed or personally experienced a traumatic event. In veterans, this is commonly combat trauma. But it can also be linked to being injured during combat, mainly if this occurs multiple times or results in hospitalization. 

PTSD can occur at any age and affects people of all ethnicities. PTSD in military personnel and veterans also goes by a few names, including shell shock and combat fatigue.

In the US, roughly 3.5% of all adults experience PTSD yearly, with an average of 1 out of 11 people receiving a life-long diagnosis. 

Recognizing PTSD In a Loved One

Individuals with PTSD experience disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their traumatic experiences. These thoughts and feelings can be very intense and all-consuming. 

At any point, people experiencing PTSD may have symptoms such as: 

  • Flashbacks 
  • Nightmares
  • Extreme sadness
  • Fear & anger 
  • Feeling detached from other people 
  • Avoid situations and people that remind them of the event 
  • Strong negative reactions to everyday things like a loud noise or accidental touch

Many people who experience traumatic events will feel some or all of the above symptoms directly after the event. But people with a PTSD diagnosis will continue to have these symptoms for more than a month.  

Scope of Suicidal Ideation In Veterans 

Many instances of suicide go unreported, so it’s difficult to determine the exact number of suicides. However, research estimates that the suicide rate among veterans is 1.5 times greater than their civilian counterparts. Generally, men’s suicidal rates are significantly higher than women’s suicidal rates, and this remains true regardless if the person is a veteran or not.

Consider the following: 

  • The US suicide rate between 1999-2010 in males was 19.4 per 100,000, compared to 4.9 per 100,000 in females. 
  • According to the most recent data from 2009, the suicide rate among male veterans was 38.3 per 100,000 compared to 12.8 per 100,000. 

PTSD and Suicide Risk 

When someone goes through trauma, they can experience an increased risk of suicide. There’s also evidence that forms of trauma outside of war/combat can cause this increased risk. Other forms of trauma include childhood abuse and sexual trauma. While it’s unclear if PTSD directly affects suicide risks, veterans are trauma survivors. Surviving trauma for veterans may mean carrying a lot of unresolved guilt related to trauma memories, extreme anger, and poor impulse control. This is particularly true if someone copes with these feelings by not speaking about them. The best way to remove the extreme emotional power is to talk about them openly. 

Increased Risk of Substance Abuse 

Two top risk factors for substance abuse among veterans include mental illnesses such as PTSD and suicidal thoughts. 

Approximately half the military personnel who seek substance abuse treatment meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. 

National Institute on Drug Abuse research also shows that alcohol abuse and high levels of combat exposure are associated. Consider the following statistics: 

  • Military personnel with limited combat reported rates of 17% heavy drinking and 45% binge drinking. 
  • Military personnel with high combat exposure reported rates of 26.8% heavy drinking and 54.8% binge drinking.  

Find Individually Tailored Dual Diagnosis Treatment 

When dealing with PTSD, suicidal ideation, and possibly substance abuse, many layers of healing need to happen. Finding treatment can be complex because these factors must be considered when determining a treatment approach. 

A mental health treatment that considers all factors is highly individualized to the specific person’s needs. For help locating an experienced treatment provider, contact us.


Journal of Veteran Studies – Veteran Suicide Exposure: Associations with Guilt, PTSD, and Suicidality

PubMed Central: Frontiers in Psychology – Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicidal Ideation, and Suicidal Self-Directed Violence Among U.S. Military Personnel and Veterans: A Systematic Review of the Literature From 2010 to 2018

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:PTSD: National Center for PTSD – Suicide and PTSD

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:PTSD: National Center for PTSD – The Relationship Between PTSD and Suicide


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