The Airman’s Guide to Suicide Prevention

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey --

As September arrives and summer gives way to fall, changes are all around us. Leaves turn from their summer shades of green to rusty shades of reds, yellows and oranges. The warm nights are ushered in by cooler temperatures, and stores begin to set up their autumn displays. Fall is a time that is loved by many, and for most, a time of celebration and cheer to welcome the winter season.

However, for some who are struggling with thoughts of suicide, it can be a time of intense sadness and depression.

While Suicide Prevention Month is observed across the U.S. in September, all Airmen have a duty to be true Wingmen to their peers 24/7, 365 days a year. It includes getting to know our fellow Airmen, from the newest shop mate to the most senior one. It means being aware of what is going on in their lives, supporting them through difficult times, recognizing the signs of suicidal thoughts and taking action.

Suicide: Why it’s A Problem

In today’s military, Airmen are expected to be well-rounded, resilient wartime fighters. Because of this, seeking help can sometimes be viewed as a weakness.

“I like to say that Airmen are normal people put into abnormal situations,” said Chaplain Maj. Martin Barnes, chaplain assigned to the 39th Air Base Wing. “We’re asked to do things that the common person, outside the force, isn’t asked to do. Alongside a high operations tempo, it can allude to so many professional and personal stressors in an Airman’s life.”

The DOD reported 110 deaths due to suicide in the first quarter of the 2016 calendar year alone, accounting for only a portion of the 466 total deaths due to suicide last year. That number rose to 127 deaths in the third quarter, and of that number, 82 were active duty members, 18 were Reserve members and 27 were Air National Guard members.

“Trying to lead this fast-paced lifestyle with added pressures can lead to negative stressors snowballing and spiraling out from there,” Barnes said. “Airmen are engaged mentally and physically on a regular basis, but it’s important for them to engage the spiritual pillar as well. That preventative piece is so important to spiritual wellbeing.”

For many troops, the topic of suicide can often feel like the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about – but with so many deaths, it is a growing concern in today’s ranks.

“Mental illness does not discriminate,” said Maj. Charles Holt III, 39th Medical Operations Squadron director of psychological health. “It doesn’t pick certain people out and it’s not because you just didn’t build up enough character over your life.

“It doesn’t create a wound or an injury that you can see a lot of times, but that doesn’t make it any less real,” Holt explained. “This is something that’s treated through a medical model, the same way physical injuries are.”

In order to understand and address this problem, the DOD is committed to approaching suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention with a wide range of holistic resources.

“The Chaplain Corps is always here,” explained Barnes. “We are a nonjudgmental ear in your corner, here to listen without having to worry about being judged or labelled. No matter what, Airmen will always have a buddy, no matter how lost and alone they may feel in the world.”

Some additional resources are the Behavioral Health Optimization Program (BHOP), the on-base Military Family and Life Counselor (MFLAC), mental health clinic and support from unit, friends and family.

Reaching out for help is never a sign of weakness, but one of strength, resilience, and a step towards recovery.

Your Role in Suicide Prevention

Suicidal behavior can stem from a multitude of factors including financial worries, relationship and marital issues, legal and disciplinary problems, or behavioral health disorders.

Some of the symptoms of suicidal behavior include:

-depression

-talking about death or wanting to die

-hopelessness

-little interest in work or other activities

-withdrawal from family and friends

-anxiety

-low self esteem

-changes in appearance

-substance abuse

-making arrangements or giving away possessions

If you notice any of these behaviors in somebody else, take the matter seriously and ask them if they are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Encourage them to talk about it, actively listen, and be supportive.

“My first advice is to seek help before it gets to the point of having suicidal thoughts,” said Barnes. “Suicide awareness and being knowledgeable is paramount to preventing and intervening in a possible suicide. You’ve got to know yourself, so you can take that training you are given and engage others.”

Finally, if a person expresses suicidal desires, never leave them alone. Escort the individual to a chaplain, behavioral health professional, or military care provider.

“When you see those red flags, get that person away so you can ask them how they are doing,” Barnes said. “Know the people around you so that you can engage them in a way that is meaningful to them. Ask them directly, are you thinking about hurting yourself? What’s going on? How can I help?”

Every Airman has a responsibility to step in and be a good wingman. Remember that just one person can mean the difference between life and a possible death.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647 for help 24 hours a day.