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Information is best weapon against suicide

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Marianique Santos
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
In the year 2010 there were 110, in the year 2011 there were 122 and half way through 2012, already at 140; these, according to defense officials, are the number of suicides across the services within the past three years. It shows an upward trend in the number of lives lost despite the constantly increasing amount of money and effort the military pours into suicide prevention.

With the number of suicides in 2012 doubling what it was ten years ago, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta have called it one of the most complex and urgent problems facing the department, said a Pentagon spokesperson during a briefing with reporters on June 8.

Though the increasing trend has been consistent among all the branches, Capt. Shawn Wilson, 36th Medical Operation Squadron mental health flight commander, said that the increase in suicides in the Air Force is far from the rate Department of Defense wide. She said that this increase could be attributed to a number of possible reasons.

"The overall size of our force could have something to do with it, but it should be also considered that the Air Force has placed a lot of effort in suicide prevention," she said. "We've started a resiliency element within the last year and a half, where they have taken all of our assets under one chief just to make sure that we're reaching out to everyone."

The Air Force starts the information process early. They reach out to Airmen in basic military training and once again in the First Term Airmen Course when Airmen transition from training to a mission-oriented environment. The support and information is continuous throughout an Airman's career. This is accomplished through front line supervisor training, resiliency training and the monitored and reported completion rates of the suicide prevention computer-based training.

"It's more than just the suicide prevention training: it would be the stress management we offer, any of the healthy thinking classes and the parenting classes; all those factors are included in the stressors that would have people look at suicide as being an option," said Captain Wilson. "It's typically not just one thing; it's a whole host of things that cause people to think they don't have any other choice."

"You have to take care of people in all the other areas to make them feel supported," agreed Tech. Sgt. Carolyn Heron, 36 MDOS mental health flight noncommissioned officer-in-charge.

In support of mental health, the family medicine clinics recently integrated the Behavioral Health Optimization Program. In this program, a mental health provider works in the clinic to provide care to patients who answer that they are distressed to questions regarding their current emotional or mental disposition.

"I think the integration of the BHOP in family medicine clinics was a great move in providing our Airmen the support they need," said Sergeant Heron. "Since the provider is right there in the clinic, the person doesn't have to deal with the stigma of having to go through mental health."

The mental health clinic also has a wide variety of informative material such as the crisis response cards, mental health pamphlets and suicide prevention brief that can be provided to the squadrons upon request for Wingman Day.

"The more that the Airmen are aware of resources, the less likely they are to feel helpless when those times come or if they actually occur," said the captain.

Aside from bases individual effort, there has recently been a national defense act that mandated more positions for mental health providers. The Air Force has around 48 new authorizations that they have to distribute between active duty and contracting civilian positions that would help provide assistance in mental health treatment.

In addition to this, the mental health is also taking advantage of technology to push this cause even further.

"For bases in the continental United States, Military One Source also has an on-call provider, and there is now an app called E-check Up for mental health concerns," said Sergeant Heron. "Mental health is also working towards video teleconferencing. What they are trying to do with all this is be able to reach out to those in areas where a professional is unable to tend to the servicemember in person."

Sergeant Heron said that the combination of what the Air Force is doing now, with continued education across the board, is the best thing the Air Force can do.

"There's only so much we can control," said Sergeant Heron. "But at the same time, the fact that we're trying to put every effort in making sure we're assisting our troops the best that we can is doing something right."

With all the projects in process and already in place, mental health, with the support of Air Force leadership, is constantly finding ways to further suicide prevention.

"In my experience, Air Force leadership has been very supportive with the mental health initiatives because they know that the services that we offer and the information we put out to the squadrons help the wellbeing of the Air Force 100 percent," said Captain Wilson. "Not just for suicide prevention, but also increasing the resilience of the Airmen, getting them and keeping them at a point where they can perform optimally."