More than 40,000 Americans lose their life due to suicide each year and research shows that rates in the military and the general population are very close.
The loss of any one person to suicide is a tragedy, and that is why the Air Force is committed to the goal of zero suicides.
Making progress towards this goal requires buy in from everyone in the Air Force, from its most senior leaders to junior Airmen. Everyone has a role to play in prevention. The most basic, and often most effective, way to prevent suicide is to make sure that our family members, friends, coworkers and anyone else in our life feel connected and a have sense of belonging in the world.
“To combat something as complicated as suicide, we need leaders at every level involved,” said Lt. Col. Alicia Matteson, the Air Force suicide prevention program manager. “We need the front line supervisors, all the way up to squadron, group and wing commanders involved and being connected to their airmen.”
Risks for suicide include people with substance abuse problems, those experiencing loss or guilt, feelings of isolation, and those undergoing stress, both professionally or in their personal life. This is why it is important for commanders at every level to know the Airmen they supervise, and connect to them enough to know if they have experienced an event in their life that might increase their risk for suicide.
“If suddenly someone comes in and they’re looking exhausted, or they exhibit signs of depression or mood swings, then ask,” said Dr. Jeffrey Greenberg with the Air Force Suicide Prevention Program. “It may be nothing, and that’s fine, but it is still important to demonstrate to someone that you are concerned about what’s going on with them. We want to increase that, the connection between Airmen.”
Building connections helps sustain emotional strength, and creates a sense of belonging that fortifies against suicidal thoughts. This sense of belonging, whether it is to a unit, a family, a friend group, or something else entirely, helps sustain people when times get tough.
“You can’t control the world to stop bad things from happening. Emotional stresses are part of the reality of life,” said Greenberg. “When bad things happen, it causes a strong emotional response – anger, fear, anxiety, sadness or anything. That’s normal. We need to help our Airmen develop the tools to manage those feelings.”
This commitment to connection is backed by the Air Force’s adoption of the ACE method, which stands for “Ask, Care, Escort.” These three steps can guide Airmen when confronted with someone contemplating suicide. The Air Force Suicide Prevention website has more information on ACE and other resources to help prevent and respond to suicide.
If you, or someone you know, needs immediate help, call the Military Crisis Line and speak to a counselor by dialing 800-273-TALK and pressing 1.
Every life lost to a suicide is tragic, but together we can make a real difference. Building bonds with the people around us, even by simple gestures and friendly comments are important, and can sustain people in the face of adversity.
“Every Airmen’s job is to look out for each other,” said Matteson. “That’s what it means to be a wingman, and it’s the culture change we need to prevent the tragedy of suicide.”