Bluntly Ask About Suicide

Image courtesy of Calaveras County Government

We are losing too many people to suicide. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that more than twice as many people in the United States killed themselves (47,173) in 2017 as were murdered (19,510). It was the second-leading cause of death of people aged 10–34 and the fourth-leading cause for people aged 35–54.

This problem is actually more serious than the number of completed suicides. According to that same report, nearly 10 million people in the U.S. reported serious thoughts of committing suicide. Nearly 3 million made serious plans. Nearly 1.5 million actually attempted suicide. From 2001–2017, the overall suicide rate in this country jumped up 31%.

Veterans especially suffer in this regard. Despite the oft-quoted statistic that we are losing 22 veterans a day to suicide, the actual number, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, is actually more like 17. That’s still too many.

Current service members fare no better. According to this report from the Department of Defense, deaths by suicide in the military outpace deaths by combat. Reservists and National Guardsmen have a higher rate than the active component; enlisted personnel under age 30 account for the majority of completed suicides.

People come to a choice about suicide from a multitude of different paths. One thing we do know is that suicide does not discriminate. It crosses boundaries of age, gender, race, religion, professional occupation, and any other demographic you can think of. The numbers are climbing year-over-year and it seems like a hopeless cause. It’s not. Here are some things we can do.

Learn to recognize risk factors.

Risk factors are facts and circumstances of someone’s life that may suggest at-risk status for suicide or suicidal ideation. These include:

  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Depression
  • Substance Abuse
  • Family history of mental disorder or suicidal activity
  • Victim of physical or sexual abuse
  • Severe medical conditions

These do not necessarily mean someone will think about, attempt, or complete a suicide. These are trends that suicidal people tend to present.

Learn to recognize warning signs.

While risk factors are facts and circumstances, warning signs are actual behaviors that may indicate someone is on the road to suicide. These include:

  • Making fatalistic statements about hopelessness, emptiness, or not having a reason to live — social media is a common place for this.
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Excessive substance abuse, especially when feeling depressed or hopeless
  • Withdrawing from family or friends
  • “Checking out” on life responsibilities, e.g. work, finances, etc.
  • Taking risks that could lead to death, e.g. reckless driving
  • Giving away important possessions
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family

Ask the question.

Be blunt. Don’t ask, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” or “Are you thinking of doing something stupid?” The former is too broad — hurting oneself certainly needs to be addressed, but not all forms of self-harm necessarily lead to suicide. The latter is invalidating. If someone is already in a place where they don’t feel anyone understands them or cares about them and they want to die, then calling them or their thoughts “stupid” is the opposite of what you need to do here.

Straight-up ask, “Are you thinking about killing yourself? Or maybe, “Are you thinking of suicide?” The direct approach quickly focuses on the situation and gets you the answer you need immediately.

I have asked that question before, and many times I get a surprised response. One guy told me that he had felt down for a long time, but he didn’t realize how bad it had gotten until I asked the question. He told me that he wasn’t actively thinking about suicide, but he couldn’t swear that he wasn’t headed in that direction. Another was surprised because he was planning to commit suicide and he thought no one would care enough to even notice.

Refer them to the proper resources.

Once you are able to get someone talking about suicide, encourage them to seek the help they need. Unless you are a licensed mental health professional or a medical doctor, you need to realize that your job is to refer.

Be prepared to address the subject of stigma — either social or professional. We have come a long way in our understanding of just how many people are hurting, but we still have a long way to go in our willingness to help, as well as our willingness to seek help.


I came into work one morning having not slept a wink all night. My dog kept me up with his allergy-fueled idiosyncrasies, and I was dragging. Also, I had not had my morning coffee yet. I guess it must have showed, because no fewer than three people asked me if I was okay.

As I settled into my office to begin my day, one of my employees came in and closed my door behind me. He looked troubled, so I sat up straighter and tried to mentally prepare myself for whatever issue he was bringing to me.

“I’m concerned about you,” he said. “You made a statement earlier about wanting to go away somewhere and not think anymore. That sounds like one of those statements you trained me to pay attention to.”

It was my turn to give the surprised response.

“I…wow. Ok,” I stammered. “So, I’m not suicidal at all. I just meant that I need some off time to decompress and not think about work. Also, coffee.”

He grinned at me and left my office satisfied that I was okay, but that he had done the right thing.

This stuff works.


Frank Vaughn is a writer, photographer, and military veteran from Little Rock, Ark. He is grateful for people who care enough to ask.

Fix Yourselves, Not Each Other

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

If you’re struggling in a relationship, then listen up. That road is never an easy one under the best of circumstances, so stop believing the lie that it is only right if it’s easy. News flash:

If your relationship is so easy you can’t believe it, then don’t believe it.

Successful relationships take work by both parties. Unsuccessful ones, too, but mostly the work being done in those is of the finger-pointing variety. 

Oh, that is hard work too, you know. Especially when the result is endless fighting that not only saps your physical strength, but also your very soul. Focusing on others might save you the trouble of taking a hard look at yourself, but solving your internal issues is ultimately much more rewarding.

Emotional immaturity and intellectual dishonesty go hand-in-hand. Simply put, operating in a space where everyone else is always wrong and you are always right is both juvenile and untrue. Is your ego really so important that you are willing to alienate others and set yourself up to repeatedly fail?

“But, but…my parents made me the way I am!”

This statement is simply more finger-pointing. I used to tell this lie too, but I had to come to a place in my life where I acknowledged — with complete honesty — that everything I do in adulthood is on my bill. We can’t control the circumstances of our birth or the way we were raised, but as adults we must take control of what we become.

When we enter into relationships with others, we have to recognize that they have their faults and we have ours. If what you require from another is perfection, then prepare to be disappointed. And blame yourself when that happens. When you place unrealistic expectations on someone else, they will always fail to reach them. 

If you have been through a number of failed relationships, then consider the possible reasons why:

  1. You were simply with the wrong people. You can only know this for sure if you really know yourself, and if you really take the time to get to know them. Many relationships start out hot because of physical attraction/chemistry, common interests, or some other shared characteristic, only to fizzle out once you do the actual work of getting to know each other. When you rush through that process to get to the good stuff, you forget that the potentially bad stuff matters, too.
  2. You were simply the wrong person. You’ve been hurt. You had a bad model for adulthood when you were a child. You didn’t show the real you to the other person, so they were fooled. Whatever the reason, you simply didn’t treat the other person the way they needed or deserved to be treated.
  3. You have unresolved pain still holding you back. As I mentioned before, successful relationships take hard work. The hardest part of this hard work is addressing your own issues and resolving them without making them someone else’s problem. Whatever you happen to be dragging through life, just know that this person likely didn’t cause it. So don’t punish them for it.
  4. You did something in this relationship to create the problem. If trust is an issue in your relationship–and you caused it–then admit your fault and do whatever is necessary to heal that division. And don’t decide for both of you what that process and the timeline should be. You did the crime, so do the time. That doesn’t mean surrendering to an eternity of penance or allowing them to chisel you into something you are not, but it does mean that you owe that person the effort it takes to regain their trust and adoration.
  5. They did something to create the problem, and you refuse to forgive them. We have all done wrong things in our lives. We have all hurt someone else unnecessarily at some point. Don’t be the kind of person who willingly takes forgiveness while stubbornly withholding it yourself. Every person in every relationship will need grace at some point. The space to recover from a mistake and demonstrate contrition and a willingness to be better. Every person includes your partner.

You will never succeed in any relationship if you are the most important person in your own mind. If your feelings are all that matter to you — if what they do, say, think, or feel is all that should ever be held accountable in your mind — then prepare to fail.

Do you want to succeed? Then be what they need. Be the person to them that you want them to be to you. If you’re doing that and this still isn’t working, then you’re probably in the wrong relationship.

Just don’t assume you are because you refuse to do the work.

From Homeless to Angel

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

The man’s eyes darted around the room as he settled down at a table in the McDonald’s on St. Louis Boulevard. Every tiny sound made him jump, which was the only interruption to the constant shivering from deep in his bones. His fingerless gloves were the punchline to some cruel joke about avoiding frostbite; his tattered overcoat was a sieve for the unyielding frosty wind swirling just outside the door.

I asked where his home was and he favored me with an ironic grin. His food sat in front of him untouched as he pondered how to answer my question. At last, he plucked a steaming hot fry from its sleeve and considered it briefly before cramming it in his mouth.

“You mean right now?” he asked. “You’re looking at it. Home is wherever I am when someone asks.”

He told of walking most of the way from Kentucky to Arkansas to collect on what he believed was the promise of a job at a local horse farm. When he gave me the name of the person he spoke with, I suspected right away that something was not right with this story. After speaking with that person privately, it was confirmed that there was no job offer and I knew this situation had to be handled delicately.

I encountered dozens of indigent persons in my role as a police chaplain, but this encounter initially tripped my internal danger alarm. After making sure he was not a fugitive from justice, I arranged to give him shelter outside town for a couple of days. A local business donated some food vouchers, and the person he came to apply for a job with anonymously donated several hundred dollars to clothe him.

He set out on foot a couple of days later headed north. I got a call from him several months later and he reported that he was settled in Missouri — at a horse farm of course — and he had worked steadily for two months. He had a place to live, a little car to drive to and from work, and he was attending church. He needed one more favor from me, though.

“I never had anything in my life,” he said with a cracked voice. “I was homeless most of my life and wasn’t sure whether I should even keep living when I got to your town. Now I have a place to lay down at night, food to eat, and clothes to wear that I can be proud of. But there’s still something missing.”

I tensed as I tried to guess where this was headed. He choked back a sob and continued.

“Several people in your town showed me a kindness and generosity that no one else ever did,” he said. “I’ve always been the poor, dirty bum and most people wouldn’t give me a second look. Now that I have a solid job, I want to do something too. Can I send you some money to help the next person that wanders into town? It ain’t much, but I want to give what I can.”

I gave him a P.O. Box address, and three weeks later an envelope came that contained three $20 bills. That afternoon, I got another call from the Sheriff’s office that someone needed help.

Thankfully, I had an angel to help this new person get started.

My Dog Gets It. Why Don’t We?

Photo by Author.

I never contemplated having another dog. My previous foray into that did not go well; I adopted two rescue dogs during my time in Puerto Rico that were completely unteachable. When it was time to move back to the continental U.S., I found good homes for both and wished their new families bueno suerte as I backed out of their driveways.

Maxwell came to us through somewhat extraordinary means. His lifelong momma was no longer able to care for him, so she asked for help on Facebook in re-homing him. I don’t know why, but something about his face moved us to act.

With no more information than his age and basic diet, allergy, and activity stuff, we set out from New Jersey to meet our new son in Virginia.

. . .

Maxwell’s original momma told us he was a beagle, but I could tell right away that he was that and then some. From the second I laid eyes on the live-action version of this guy, I knew right away that he was a brick house of a beast.

I wondered if his mom’s accounting of his disposition was accurate — everyone thinks their kids and pets are God’s gift to the world — but he broke the ice between us immediately. He sauntered over to me, sniffed me up and down, and nuzzled his head up under my dangling hand.

“Hello, human. Pet me, and we’ll be just fine.”

As we prepared to turn the car back north and drive Maxwell to his new home, his outgoing mom gave us one last piece of advice.

“He’s never spent much time in cars,” she said. “Make sure you never roll the windows down, or he’ll jump out and run away.”

We followed all advice she gave us for about a week before discovering that there were many layers to this beast that had yet to peel away. As we discovered the real Max, we began to learn about ourselves.

. . .

My wife’s surgery went fine, but it was extremely invasive and promised a long, daunting recovery period. I was only able to take a week off from work post-op, so I had to leave her each day with our new four-legged nurse.

We were still feeling out what life would be like with a 12-year-old dog who presumably was set in his ways, so I was nervous about leaving them alone at first. My wife wasn’t going to be able to get around, play with him, feed him, walk him, etc., so I called home about every hour to check on them. I knew after that first day that we had a gem on our hands.

“He’s just been nuzzling up to me and licking my hand,” she said. “He seems to be a very nurturing soul.”

Through the craziness of catching up at work and worrying about my wife’s health following her surgery, I learned — from a dog I barely knew — how easy it is to just simply be there for someone. Yes, the things I did physically for my wife mattered, but just being there for her emotionally during this time was probably more important than anything else.

. . .

We will never forget that trip to Vermont. Maxwell had more than settled in with the Vaughn family by this point, so we decided to take a little weekend trip to our home away from home. We loaded the trunk of our car with all of Max’s creature comforts — his doggy bed, his favorite dog food, his retractable walking leash — and off we went.

We were maybe 12 miles up the New Jersey turnpike when he began whimpering in the back seat. Usually, that means he needs to answer the call of nature, so I picked the best horrible place to pull off on the turnpike.

He pranced around in the grass on the side of the highway for a few minutes, and he managed to tinkle a little on a fallen branch, but nothing about this stop indicated that he was in dire straits. I ushered him back into the car and we resumed our journey.

Immediately, he began whimpering again. My wife and I looked at each other, and she suggested I roll his window down a little so he could get some air. Immediately, he rose up on his hind legs, balanced his front paws against the door in the back seat, and began frantically sniffing at the air coming in through his slightly opened window.

On a whim, I decided to roll his window down as far as it could go. He lunged forward, shot his entire head out the window, and rode like that for the next 300 miles. The one time I tried to roll his window back up (we were getting cold), he immediately started groaning, whining, and growling deep in his throat. Only a fully-opened window would silence him.

From that time forward, he begs us for car rides now every afternoon — usually around 4 p.m. He has decided he cannot live without the wind in his face, and he doesn’t care how cold, hot, wet, or dry it is outside.

Maxwell has taught us to enjoy the simplest of pleasures. He has inspired us to find that proverbial “wind in our faces” and accept no less in life. Because of this dog, we have resolved to spend a little of each day finding the little joys in life and making them a non-negotiable part of our existence.

. . .

We went a little overboard with him for a while. We never fed him table scraps or, really, any human food, but we also didn’t exercise him much. He is severely prone to allergies and he’s older than dirt for a dog, so we just let him run around the back yard a little. We figured that would suffice for activity.

A couple of months ago, I took him to the vet for his periodic allergy checkup. She weighed him, sighed deeply, and asked me to sit down.

“This pup is way too heavy,” she said. “He needs to be way less…dog…than he is.”

She suggested that we walk him more. I shared my concern about his age, but she assured me that he would be okay with regular walks. In fact, she thought it might actually prolong his life to weigh less and get his blood moving more.

We decided to not just walk him, but also to subtly adjust his diet. Rather than fill his bowl up every time it was empty, we only filled it once in the morning and once mid-afternoon.

We decided to adjust our diets as well. Between that and walking him 2.5–3 miles a day, we have all lost weight. Max is down 10 lbs. and more energetic than any 14-year-old dog should be, and my wife and I are both in the best shape we’ve been in for some time.

Maxwell taught us that taking proper care of him is important, but so is taking proper care of ourselves. As a family, we have all reaped the benefits of doing the right thing for each other.

Selfie by Author with Maxwell

We have only had Maxwell for a little over a year, but he is so deeply in our hearts that it seems he’s always been a part of us. He has brought comfort, joy, and a sense of calm to our lives through some tough situations. He is our glue.

We know that Maxwell’s remaining years are few at this point, and it will be hard when we eventually lose him. He will leave a physical void that will be tough to overcome.

Fortunately, though, he will leave us with something that could never be replaced. He will leave us with some life lessons that we will carry with us for our remaining years.

What Fortnite can teach you about relationships

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

I am a 45-year-old man who plays Fortnite. Before you pull out your Dork Daggers and commence to stabbing me, let me unpack the reason why. And the life lesson from it we can all win with.

I live 1,200 miles away from my 12-year-old son and COVID-19 has succeeded in keeping me from seeing him since Christmas 2019. I ordinarily make the trip home 4-6 times a year from military duty to spend quality time with my kids, but this past year-plus it just hasn’t been possible—or advisable. So I had to get creative.

Zach suggested that I check out his favorite video game. He assured me that it was multi-platform and we could play it together from a distance. The first time I logged into this game, I was overwhelmed with the sheer enormity of it. I grew up playing 8-bit games like Super Mario Bros. and Contra, but this was—something else. It’s sort like Call of Duty meets Grand Theft Auto meets Minecraft. The path to victory in Battle Royale mode is straight Hunger Games—you have to be the last one alive at the end.

When I first started playing this game, I was horrible. I would drop into the map and either the storm that closes in to make you keep moving inward on the map would get me, or some kid with a simple pistol would cap me before I could turn around. I was determined to improve on my own so that when Zach and I played together, I wouldn’t be a complete liability to our dual effort. The more I played, the better I got. Eventually, I started winning solo 100-person Battle Royales. Which confused Zach. I had no idea that the ensuing conversation would be a real relationship eye-opener for me.

“Dad, I’m so much better at this game than you, but I can’t win a solo match,” he complained. “How are you winning?!”

“Tell me how you play, kid,” I said. “I doubt there’s anything I can teach you about this game, but we’ll see.”

He explained that he lands, harvests as many weapons and as much ammo as he can, and drinks shield potions. Ok. Same thing I do, so nothing to work with there. Then he said something that opened a whole new portal into relationships for both of us.

“Once I’m geared up, I run toward the shooting,” he said. “I like to kill as many opponents as I can as I move through the map.”

“Do you ever kind of ease up on a situation before wading into the battle?” I asked.

“Nope,” he replied. “I hear shooting, I run in and try to kill everyone.”

That’s when I realized that our levels of skill in this game weren’t the only things that were vastly different. Our approaches were, as well.

“Zach, I like to assess a situation and see what’s going on before I jump in,” I said. “If I see someone by themselves, I might engage them one-on-one. If there are several kids battling each other, I either wait until there’s only one left, or I move on. The fewer conflicts I have to be in, the longer I last in the game.”

After we disconnected that night, I returned to our conversation in my thoughts. As I replayed the whole thing in my head, I was reminded of an old saying that a pastor friend passed on to me years ago.

“Not every hill is worth dying on.”

Relationships can often be sprawling, technical, and hard to navigate. You know, like today’s video games. Any two people with different backgrounds, upbringings, experiences, and opinions on things are bound to disagree at some point. Are all of those disagreements worth going to war over, though?

When those situations present themselves, ease up on them and assess them before wading in. Ask yourself why the subject is important enough to disagree openly about. Ask yourself if there is a chance you might be wrong about it before you start throwing smoke. Ask yourself if there is any chance you might change the other person’s mind before you offer a piece of yours. Sincerely seek the best way to present your point of view in a way that feels genuine and non-threatening.

If you can’t productively answer any single one of those questions, don’t choose that battle. Move on from it and save the damage it would surely cause.

The fewer conflicts you find yourself in, the longer your relationship will last.

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