By Maj. Chad Johnson
21st Medical Group Mental Health Flight
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — It is in every form of news reporting daily. In fact, the day this article was written the leading headlines in many national publications and on various websites reported:
Washington Post: “Bob Welch, the former guitarist of Fleetwood Mac, was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
CNN: “Grieving father Denis Asselin completed his journey from Philadelphia to Boston, a walk that lasted for 45 days and 525 miles, in memory of his son Nathaniel, who took his own life the previous year.”
Stars & Stripes and Time Magazine: “There have been 154 confirmed Active Duty military suicides in the first 155 days of 2012, a number that far outdistances the number of combat casualties in Afghanistan during the same time period.”
While there is no clear reason why people choose to take their own lives, there are various identifiable, evidenced-based risk factors that are modifiable. Since the Department of Defense began collecting detailed data on attempted and completed suicides in 1996, the risk factors noted in a large percentage of the reports are incredibly similar. Mental health treatment history, problems with the abuse of alcohol or other substances, family or relationship disruptions, financial or legal problems (approximately one-third of Air Force suicides are Airmen under investigation), and medical problems are indicated in nearly all attempted and completed suicides. These risk factors are also indicated in a high percentage of civilian suicides.
How are these common risk factors modifiable, especially considering the fact as human beings we sometimes make poor choices? The answer: we need to make better choices.
Example: A young Airman has an argument with his spouse about their finances and decides to go out with friends and drink heavily. He makes a poor decision to get behind the wheel and ends up with a DUI. Remember the modifiable risk factors? Because of a few poor choices, he is now at elevated risk for suicide.
Various base and community agencies exist to help us with decision making. All of these agencies (chapel, Airmen and Family Readiness Center, family advocacy, sexual assault response coordinator, legal office, Alcohol & Drug Abuse Prevention & Treatment program, health and wellness center, mental health) have a variety of programs geared toward increasing resiliency, improving the quality of life, and providing information for Airmen and family members assigned to Peterson Air Force Base. Helping individuals make better, more informed choices is also an inherent responsibility of your supervisor, first sergeant and commander.
Let’s revisit the example with the young Airman who argued with his wife, was arrested for DUI, and was now at an increased risk for suicide. Perhaps if the Airman or his spouse discussed the problem with the supervisor or first sergeant instead of making an impulsive decision, the outcome may have been much different.
The leader would have likely explained the couple had several options at their disposal. The A&RFC could provide financial counseling and budgeting assistance, the family advocacy program or the chapel could provide preventative marital counseling so the couple could learn new methods for resolving their differences. The ADAPT program could meet with the Airman to educate him on ways to decompress or handle conflict without resorting to the use of alcohol.
While the words “suicide prevention” would not likely have come up in any of these interventions, the modifiable suicide risk factors were directly addressed and the chances of a successful outcome increased significantly.
It may not make national headlines, but the difference in the lives and future of that Airman and his family may be substantial and keep them out of the news.
If you are feeling suicidal, speaking to your supervisor is always an option. Other options include the chaplain at 556-4442; mental health at 556-7804; Military One Source at 800-342-9647; or the military family life consultant at (719) 640-9961.