What to say to a Veteran who is struggling.

The Reach

Don’t deny their feelings, instead, help the Veteran feel and express his/her feelings.

The best way to support someone in emotional pain is to validate their suffering. You might say:   

  • “You’ve been struggling a lot lately.”
  • “You’ve had a hard go of it.” 
  • “It takes a lot to go through what you’ve been through.”  
  • “You’ve endured a lot.”
  • “I would guess you’re pretty weary with all that has happened.”
  • “Tell me about the difficulties you’ve been having.”
  • “Of all these difficulties, what is the hardest for you to deal with?”       

Allow a safe place for tears. You might say:

  • “It’s okay to cry.”
  • “Your tears are safe here.”
  • “Don’t choke down your tears. When you feel the lump in your throat, let your feelings out through your tears.”

Platitudes minimize feelingsThings NOT to say: 

  • “Count your blessings.” 
  • “You’ve got to look on the bright side.” 
  • “God never gives you more than you can handle.”
  • “Something good will come out of this.”  
  • “You were just following orders.”
A Veteran’s struggle may include thoughts of suicide.

If you fear the Veteran may be suicidal, do the following:

Ask:  Are you thinking about killing yourself?  

  • Research shows that by asking this question, it gives the Veteran an opportunity to talk about it. It does not encourage him/her to commit suicide.
  •  Express compassion and care. Communicate that the Veteran’s thoughts and behaviors make sense, that many people think about killing themselves.
  • Validation is important. Communicate that the Veteran’s feelings are understandable and acceptable exactly as they are.
  •  Denying or suppressing pain makes it worse!

Things NOT to say:

  •   “How could you do that to yourself?”
  •   “What is wrong with you?”
Recognize the Signs of Suicide Risk (Source U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs)

If the Veteran is not in imminent danger, start a conversation to help him/her open up and to find out how you might be able to help. You might say:                                                                                                    

  • “When did you first start feeling like this?”
  • “Did something happen that made you begin to feel this way?” 

When responding to answers from a Veteran, remember that simple, encouraging feedback goes a long way in showing support and encouraging help-seeking. You might say:

  • “You’re not alone, even if you feel like you are. I’m here for you, and I want to help you in any way I can.” 
  • “It may not seem possible right now, but the way you’re feeling will change.” 
  • “I might not be able to understand exactly what you’re going through or how you feel, but I care about you and want to help.” 

The presence of these behaviors requires immediate attention: 

  • The Veteran is searching for ways to kill him or herself
  • The Veteran is talking about death, dying or suicide. You may hear concerning statements like: My family would be better off if I wasn’t here;” I can’t go on like this;” “No one can help me.”
  • The Veteran is demonstrating self-destructive behavior such as increasing drug/alcohol abuse, unsafe use of weapons, etc
  • The Veteran exhibits extreme emotional outbursts (loud crying, yelling)                          
    DO NOT leave this struggling Veteran alone! 

Call the Veteran Crisis Line if you learn that the Veteran has any of these warning signs:

  •  Hopelessness, feeling like there is no way out
  •  Feeling like there is no reason to live
  • Anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, mood swings 
  • Rage or anger
  • Engaging in risky activities without thinking   
  • Increasing alcohol or drug abuse
  • Withdrawing from family and friends 

If you know a Veteran who is showing any of these signs, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or text to 838255.