SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. --
The AMC Innovation Office recently partnered with AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation arm, and a team of Air Force ROTC cadets to discover how existing technologies could help prevent suicides across the force.
Olivia Abel, from Tulane University, Josh Soliz, from New Mexico State University, and Dana Markowski, from Texas Tech University, conducted the research, which included interviews with current and former military personnel. They produced a seven–page analysis citing possible solutions. William Hammerli, the AMC Master Process Officer with the AMC Innovation office mentored the cadets.
“I chose this project for the ROTC Cadets because I wanted to see if they could identify some unique approaches based on their experiences with young adults at these universities to address suicide prevention,” said Hammerli. “They did a phenomenal job.”
The team found relationship and financial stress caused by extended deployments, reluctance to seek mental health care, and access to weapons, were primary factors putting Airmen at risk. Additionally, shifting from the fast-paced tempo of deployment back to normal life takes an emotional toll on Airmen. The cadets discovered in some unit’s single people deploy more often than their married counterparts, increasing stress.
The research team proposed several recommendations for suicide prevention at the conclusion of their research:
- Monthly mental health evaluations for Airmen. Regular evaluations would prompt Airmen to report on mental health issues and request help more frequently. The evaluation would document stressors, coping mechanisms, and the need for assistance.
- Website or mobile application. A website or app could be used to encourage support and healing through such features as self-help resources, educational content, stories from Airmen, online chats, and virtual meetings.
- Social media monitoring. Analyzing the social media or internet activity of military members to find possible suicide risk factors.
Now a commissioned officer with a degree in psychology, 2nd Lt. Olivia Abel said the suicide prevention project was her top choice.
“I knew I had to complete a professional development training, but I really wanted it to be something I was interested in and had some passion for,” Abel said. “I wanted to do something that I could really get involved in and feel like I was part of something.”
Due to Covid, most professional development opportunities centered on attending video conferences and writing follow-up papers, Abel said. However, she appreciated that the AFWERX internship would require more active participation by the cadets, despite the pandemic.
Joshua Soliz selected the topic because he considers it an important issue for the Air Force and ROTC cadets. Also, having lost friends and family to suicide, he noted that, “this topic really resonates with me to the core.”
“There are many people out there, both in and out of the military, who are struggling,” Soliz said. “Struggling to find themselves and their purpose. I wanted to dive deep into this internship so that I could take what I learn and start making an impact on the cadets, military personnel, and civilians that I interact with.”
Abel said the project reinforced for her the importance of taking care of the people under your command. These lessons will make her a better officer, she said.
“I learned the importance of talking to your people and getting to know them personally, so you know when they are having a hard time or going through something,” Abel said. “I learned the importance of knowing what drives and motivates them, and possibly having an open-door policy so they can come talk to you when they have an issue or are struggling.”
The process of conducting the research included weekly video meetings with their mentor, Hammerli, in which the cadets discussed not only suicide prevention, but also leadership.
“Hammerli made sure to get input and ideas from each of us, which ensured all of us were heard and respected, and that we each felt ok talking about such a heavy subject,” Abel said. “He would also ask what we learned or thought about from research we did on our own time during the week, and we would all bring together any new ideas we had about causes of suicide and possible suicide prevention methods.”
Abel said the cadets worked well together. They began the project by putting their ideas and research into a central document. Next, they split the work amongst themselves, with each cadet researching different aspects of suicide prevention before combining everything into a single paper.
Additionally, Soliz tapped virtual-reality technology to train other cadets about preventing suicide.
Moth+Flame was contracted by Air Mobility Command to develop an immersive VR training experience to the Air Force on sensitive topics such as suicide prevention and sexual assault prevention and response.
“We believe this training will not only save lives but prepare our Airmen for tough conversations that will build a more resilient force,” said Victor Jones, AMC Suicide Prevention program manager and contract owner.
Jones said feedback has been positive to include significant increases in preparedness, confidence, likelihood to intervene, and engagement with distressed members, with the largest impact among the 18- to 25-year-old demographic. Currently, AMC is utilizing the Suicide Prevention VR command wide.
Soliz asked to use the same training for cadets at AFROTC detachments in New Mexico and Texas. The company sent software and equipment to the universities, which allowed Soliz to lead other cadets through this critical training.
Warning signs for suicide include sudden changes in sleep, appearance, work performance, mood, attitude, and behavior.
If you are in crisis, or know someone who is, contact the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, then press 1, or access online chat by texting 838255. You may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).