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Suicide Prevention Training for Line Leaders

Line leaders

Source: U.S. Marine Corps photo by
Sgt. Mallory VanderSchans/Released

Suicide prevention begins with leadership and requires engagement from all parts of the military community.1 In many ways, line leaders are in the best position to reduce the stressors that can lead to suicidal ideation. Supervisors and unit leaders can establish a supportive command atmosphere by fostering a culture of engagement with subordinates and peers that encourages service members to ask for help and seek psychological care or support when needed.1

Create a Supportive Command Environment

Line leaders are in a unique position to create a supportive climate within their command, where service members can feel comfortable reaching out to their leadership for help. The key to creating a supportive command environment is to encourage open communication among peers and within the chain of command. Additionally, as a leader, you can promote the following messages to encourage help seeking behavior in your command:

  • Experiencing psychological stress as a result of deployment or mission fulfillment is common.
  • Warriors have reached out for psychological support or care with successful outcomes, including learning coping tools, maintaining their security clearance and continuing to succeed in their military or civilian careers.
  • Getting care for invisible wounds sooner rather than later can increase positive outcomes.
  • Reaching out for help benefits the service member, their family, their unit, their service branch and their community.

Help your unit as a whole cope with challenges throughout the deployment cycle by taking steps to build and strengthen its resilience. Read the Real Warriors Campaign article, “Five Tips to Reinforce Unit Cohesion,” to learn how to foster the natural support network within your unit.

Identifying Those at Risk

As a leader, you know the warriors in your unit best, and you may recognize early warning signs of distress that sometimes precede suicidal thoughts or behaviors. To help you recognize potential risk factors exhibited by service members in your command, ask yourself if your warriors have experienced or exhibited any of the following signs:2, 3

  • Previous suicide attempt or self-destructive behavior
  • Significant relationship, financial, medical or work-related problem
  • Current or pending disciplinary or legal action
  • Substance misuse (e.g., excessive use of alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs)
  • Problems with a major life transition (e.g., retirement, discharge, divorce, etc.)
  • Loss of a close buddy or member of the unit
  • Setbacks in military career or personal life
  • Severe, prolonged stress that seems unmanageable
  • Sense of powerlessness, helplessness or hopelessness
  • Behavior that isolates him or herself from friends and family members
  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Decrease in personal hygiene

If you recognize any risk factors or warning signs [PDF 482.84KB] exhibited by a service member, do not hesitate to intervene using the “ACE” (Ask, Care, Escort) method:3

  • ASK if he/she is thinking about taking his or her own life
  • CARE for those at risk for suicide by showing that you are concerned for their safety
  • ESCORT those at risk for suicide to the unit’s chaplain or health professional for help

Take Action

A strong leader protects those serving under his or her command and takes action if someone is at risk. If concern is raised about a service member, remember the following:3

  • Take any discussion of suicidal ideation seriously, no matter how casually they are expressed
  • Actively listen for details about what, where and when the warrior may be planning to kill himself or herself.
  • Stay with the service member and remain calm and safe – do not use force
  • Remove any objects or tools that pose a danger to your warrior
  • Express concern to the service member about his/her safety
  • Show the service member that help is available by escorting him/her to appropriate professional help

The loss of any warrior’s life is a tragedy, whether in combat or in a different type of battle. You must use your skills as a leader to take decisive action if someone in your unit or under your command is at risk.

Additional Resources

Sources

1 Dr. Alan Berman and others. “The Challenge and the Promise: Strengthening the Force, Preventing Suicide and Saving Lives,” [PDF 5.54MB] Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces, Department of Defense. Published August 2010.
2 Suicidal Behavior, Leaders Guide for Managing Marines in Distress. U.S. Marine Corps. Last accessed Sept. 17, 2013.
3ACE Suicide Prevention Card, (TA-144-0810) Defense Department. Published Aug. 2010.

Last Reviewed: 08/25/14
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