The Air Force is determined to prevent suicide, but you don’t need to be a specialist or doctor to do that. Sometimes all it takes is starting a conversation. Everyone has a role to play. That’s a key part of the Department of Defense’s #BeThere Campaign, which encourages making a difference through every day connections.
“We're sending the message that it's ok to have problems and it's ok to talk about them. Having problems and talking about them with people you work with openly is a sign of strength, not weakness,” said Maj. Joel Foster, Chief of Air Force Deployment Health who supports the Suicide Prevention Program with annual training. “The fact that everyone can intervene is part of the messaging we're trying to promote. Every Airman is a censor.”
He said Airmen should look out for certain red flags, like changes in mood or behavior, substance abuse, indications of problems at home or domestic violence. Problems like these can lead to thoughts of suicide, but you’re only going to notice if you’re paying attention. For this reason, supervisors, commanders, first sergeants, and peers need to get to know their Airmen more personally because they’re the ones Airmen with problems should feel comfortable turning to for help.
“Supervisors and commanders really need to get involved with their Airmen and get to know them personally so they can identify when things are not going well,” Foster said. “They can see subtle changes in their behavior and in their personality and in their work productivity so they can intervene early and help that Airman get the tools and the right resources that they need.”
Commanders have a huge role to play in preventing suicides because they have such a large amount of influence, said Foster.
“They have the influence to create an environment that is conducive to help-seeking behavior, to promoting a healthy lifestyle and encouraging a sense of balance in life,” he said. “If we have all of those factors operating, then Airmen will feel a sense of connectedness. They’ll have a strong support system to buffer against the stressors of life.”
There are already a number of resources for Airmen in need, such as Wingman Online or Military One Source, and the Air Force is introducing new initiatives all the time. For example, Airmen always have access to mental health clinics on base when they need help. Plus, they can always find Military and Family Life Consultants at Airman and Family Readiness Centers.
Something new the Air Force is doing is embedding Military and Family Life Consultants directly into the squadrons. MFLCs don’t replace mental health or medical services, but they do provide access to a short-term counselling service. Airmen with embedded MFLCs will have increased access to this service at the point where they need it.
“We’re decreasing the barriers, decreasing the stigma, increasing availability and increasing the use of services,” Foster said. “They know the culture of the squadron they're a part of and that makes it easier for Airmen to trust them and feel like they can go to them.”
He said ideally by catching things early or referring Airmen to the appropriate care at the right time, MFLCs could help Airmen in all four areas of Air Force resiliency by keeping them physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually fit.
“The bottom line here is if you have your life well-ordered, and you are engaged in all four domains of Airmen fitness, suicide is not something you would resort to.”
The Air Force is also collaborating with chaplains, who have 100 percent confidentiality when Airmen need someone to talk to about the troubles they’re facing. Foster said they’re working with the Chief of Chaplains to give chaplains the tools to enhance their ability to assess suicidal risk.
He said, “We're hoping to give them the tools to be more effective in evaluating the level of risk of Airmen. Then they can use that information to inform Airmen about the next steps to take and what they need to do to get the right services.”
Foster said recent studies have shown when one person commits suicide it can impact up to 100 other people that they knew and worked with, and eventually those numbers can impact productivity and readiness. If one suicide can impact that many people, then it’s important for an organization like the Air Force that values its people to develop concrete ways to prevent it.
“Every Airman matters and every single Airman has a role to play and makes a difference,” Foster said.
Airmen should think about all the different ways they can #BeThere for friends, family, fellow service members, and veterans. Other resources you can use for yourself or someone you know are the Wingman Toolkit and the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.