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‘Reaching out is invaluable’: All Airmen have role in preventing suicide

Suicide Prevention

Capt. Robin Morris is a clinical social worker at the Peak Performance Center at the U.S. Air Force Academy. (U.S. Air Force Academy photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Suicide has no boundaries.

Statistics show that if you’re reading this, you’ve likely lost a friend, relative or coworker to suicide. Chances are, you know at least once person who took their own life.

I do.

Before I joined the Air Force, I was a Suicide Prevention Program case manager at the Veteran’s Administration. I lost two veterans.

This was more than 10 years ago, but I still wonder if I should or if I could have done something different.

September might be Suicide Awareness Month across the Defense Department, but at the Peak Performance Center, we’re concerned about this issue year-round. We’re concerned about our cadets and we’re concerned about you.  

According to the Global Health Organization, nearly 800,000 people across the world take their own lives each year. This year, as of today, 78 Airmen have committed suicide.

At the Peak Performance Center, we know that regardless of the day or month, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein’s message of building healthy airmen, supporting teams and building a culture of trust to ensure that we thrive -- not just survive -- is critical. We believe in this message. We let cadets know that suicidal thoughts are treatable.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s message for National Suicide Prevention Month is “#BeThe1To”, a program spreading the word about what we can all do to curb this global problem. It’s pretty simple: Ask, keep them safe, be there, connect, and follow up.

#BeThe1To Ask

Asking someone who has thoughts of suicide in a caring way provides relief. Talking about suicidal thoughts reduces suicidal thoughts.

Take the case of Kevin Hines as an example. Hines tried to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge but lived to tell his tale. He now tours the U.S. to talk about his suicide attempt.

At these presentations, Hines says he was crying for hours that day. He tells his audience that if one person had reached out, he wouldn’t have leapt off the bridge … but no one tried to help him. My point? Reaching out is invaluable, especially when we know someone is hurting. You don’t have to be a mental health professional to care for someone or ask them if they’re OK.  

#BeThe1To Keep Them Safe

Suicidal intensity – which describes the spectrum of where people are with regards to feeling suicidal – is typically short-lived. Research shows that limiting someone’s access to lethal means decreases their chances of acting out suicidal thoughts.

The adage, “there’s nothing you can do if someone puts their mind to it,” is not true.

#BeThe1To Be There

Provide a safe, nonjudgmental space for the person to express their thoughts. They’re less likely to feel depressed, suicidal or overwhelmed.

#BeThe1To Connect

Help someone create a network of resources and support. Supervisors and coworkers should know the resources available to cadets. Seeking help is universal, whether it’s a flat tire, physical illness or suicidal thoughts.

#BeThe1To Follow-up

Caring, ongoing contact is an important part of suicide prevention. Early help-seeking behaviors mitigate the risk of suicide when someone displays warning signs and risk factors.

We know cadets are concerned about their military career but according to an Air Force study, 97 percent of Airmen who pursued behavioral health care returned to their normal duties. I would say 100 percent of Airmen who seek behavior health treatment have made a very positive impact on their life.

So yes -- suicide has no boundaries. It affects all races, genders and socioeconomic statuses. Certainly there are risk factors for certain populations, but you don’t have to be in a high-risk category to experience suicidal thoughts, engage in suicidal behavior or commit suicide.

Getting help early and getting ahead of the issue before it becomes a crisis is so important. The Peak Performance Center can direct you to the right helping agency. Seeking help is universal, whether it’s a flat tire, physical illness, suicidal ideations, so tap into your network of coworkers, supervisors, friends and relatives.

As Total Force Airmen, we’re our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Ignoring warning signs or passing the buck will never change the culture for the better.

[Editor’s note: The Peak Performance Center is an internationally-accredited college counseling center offering short-term, individual therapy for a wide variety of behavioral health challenges. The staff includes licensed social workers, psychologists, behavioral health technicians and certified alcohol and drug abuse counselors skilled in addressing cadets’ personal and military challenge. Call 719-333-2107 or visit www.usafa.edu/cadet-life/cadet-support-services/counseling-and-advising for more information.]