By Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves, 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 21, 2017
SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- Throughout September, organizations across the United States make efforts to raise awareness of a mental health issue affecting many demographics.
During Suicide Prevention Month, organizations promote the understanding of suicide by providing information about how individuals can identify warning signs and how they can help themselves or others seek support.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more than 40,000 lives annually at a rate of 13 individuals per 100,000.
“Suicide rates in the military are similar to those found in the civilian sector and have been increasing over the past couple of years,” said Maj. (Dr.) Tiffany Brakefield-Allen, 20th Medical Operations Squadron mental health clinic officer in charge.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, factors which increase suicide risk must be decreased and factors which promote resiliency or coping must be increased for effective suicide prevention.
Some factors which may increase suicide risk include loss of identity, change in relationship status, and financial or job problems, said Brakefield-Allen. There are no universal symptoms or signs of suicide, but risk factors may lead to warning signs of suicidal ideation, including withdrawal from activities, appearing down or depressed, and experiencing changes in sleep or appetite.
Individuals who might be experiencing these difficulties at Shaw Air Force Base have a variety of resources available to help them cope with heightened stress or suicidal thoughts.
Among those resources is the 20th Fighter Wing Chaplain Corps.
“We can provide that safe space, that 100% confidentiality, to allow Airmen (and families) the opportunity to sit down and share what is in their hearts and on their minds,” said Chaplain (Capt.) James Finley, 20th FW Chaplain Corps chaplain. “If someone needs to talk through something, they can see us as a safe place to go.”
Once a person reaches out to a chaplain, Finley said the two will work together to ensure the individual needing help is safe, is not alone and has support, whether from a chaplain, friend, family member or another trusted person. They will also make a plan to seek further help, which may include encouraging the individual to contact the mental health clinic.
“We’re the front line if you need us,” said Finley. “But the Airmen at the mental health clinic are the professionals on the topic and are great resources. Don’t be afraid of them. Go talk to them. They’re there to help.”
For some struggling with stress and suicidal thoughts, approaching a mental health professional may be difficult or uncomfortable.
“Many active-duty members are afraid talking to someone (at mental health) will negatively impact their career,” said Brakefield-Allen. “However, for the majority of mental health patients, chain of command is not contacted and no changes in duty status are needed, especially when someone comes for help early on.”
By addressing concerns earlier, it is like tackling small hills rather than mountains, said Finley. If someone finds themselves depressed and starts to become secluded or drop relationships, it is a good time for them to look to the people around them, because these are early signs which could lead to depression.
For those who do not reach out to helping organizations, the people around them can be vital.
“Open communication with each other about our emotional well-being is essential to reducing our suicide rates,” said Brakefield-Allen. “Despite any discomfort it may create, asking someone directly about suicide is an important responsibility for all wingmen, especially if you are concerned about someone's well-being.”
According to the Air Force Medical Service website’s suicide prevention section, a person who has identified an individual considering suicide can use the A.C.E. model to provide help:
— Ask: Have the courage to ask the question, but stay calm. Ask the person directly if they are thinking of killing themselves.
— Care: Calmly control the situation; be safe and do not use force. Actively listen to show understanding and produce relief. Remove any means which could be used for self-injury.
— Escort: Never leave them alone. Escort to the nearest emergency room, mental health clinic, primary care provider, chaplain or chain of command.
“No Airman should ever feel as though they don't have anywhere to turn,” said Brakefield-Allen. “Airmen must demonstrate a collective determination to prevent suicide and encourage those in need to seek support. … No one is immune to these types of thoughts as most people experience them at some point in their lifetime. When friends, family and peers notice changes and choose to help, the results can be lifesaving.”
Below is a list of local and national resources available for those struggling with extreme stress or suicidal thoughts, or for those seeking more information about the topic.
— 20th Medical Operations Squadron mental health clinic, 803-895-6199
— 20th Medical Group Behavioral Health Optimization Program clinic, 803-895-6244
— 20th Fighter Wing Chaplain Corps, 803-895-1106
— Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255
— National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255