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Suicide Prevention Month: ‘Be There’

  • Published
  • By M. Jeannelle Perkins-Muhammad
  • 315th Airlift Wing Airman & Family Readiness director
September is suicide prevention month! “Be There”, the DoD Suicide Prevention Campaign theme, is an opportunity for our Joint Base Charleston community to have discussion of depth amongst service members, family members, civilian employees and beyond. As the director of 315th Airlift Wing Airman & Family Readiness, I recognize that our reservists have many of the same challenges as active duty members. The stressors differ slightly in that reservists have more deployments and a constant transition from military to civilian life. We are all vital to the mission and suicide prevention is an on-going commitment. 

We can “Be There” by acknowledging that coping skills vary and accepting the reality that one in five adult Americans experience a mental health crisis in a given year. Many deny the psychological effects of trauma, crisis, or caregiving. Unfortunately, we dismiss symptoms of depression, anxiety and avoid clinical help. Fortunately, some seek treatment and recover quickly; others continue treatment for a few years and may return for a tune up; and a few require treatment for a lifetime. Like any family, we have to be acquainted with what’s happening to assist as we grapple for survival together. “Be There” means having a relationship and familiarity with those in our sphere of influence. “Be There” requires an understanding of the statistics surrounding suicide in an effort to demystify and conquer the stigma of mental illness/crisis and encourage help seeking behaviors. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 40,600 suicides in 2012 and 90 percent of those individuals suffered from a mental illness, usually depression. With suicide being the 10th leading cause of death in Americans, the numbers are quite alarming for our military personnel. The Department of Veterans Affairs (includes active duty and reservists) states that between 2001 and 2014, suicide rates increased by 32 percent compared to 23 percent in the civilian population. Our veteran population is at a 41-61 percent greater risk of suicide than our civilian counterparts.   

A greater prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans deployed during Iraq and Afghanistan (13.5 percent and 15 percent respectively) and 10.9 percent for those non-deployed, contribute significantly to the increase in military suicide rate. That means approximately 40 percent of our service members are in need of assistance and only 50 percent are seeking treatment. The research available for our civilian population includes families of military members, deployed and non-deployed and the increases are just as alarming. When our service members are affected, so are our families.

Families experience the impact of deployments, geographic relocations, financial hardships, career interruptions and re-integrations. These circumstances occur in civilian life as well, now add a service member who is re-experiencing trauma from a deployment or life-events. If suicide occurs, the families can be left to pick up the pieces. This is especially difficult for children. Interestingly, one in five young people ages 13-18 live with mental health conditions as well. Nearly 50 percent of these students age 14 and older drop out of high school. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24 and 90 percent of those suicides have a co-occurring mental illness/crisis associated with their suicide completion. Where are our military children in these statistics?   

The California Healthy Kids Survey (2016) of 5th, 7th, 9th and 11th graders found that 24 percent of military-connected students (at least one service member in the household) reported a viable consideration of suicide compared with 18.1 percent of non-military connected students. Non-military connected youth attempted suicide at a rate of 7.3 percent compared to 12 percent of military connected students. Similar to adult service members, high risk behaviors include substance use/abuse, risky driving, weapon-carrying, violence and victimization. These statistics demonstrate a need for increase awareness and desire to “Be There” for our military families. 

American Psychological Association recommends a three pronged approach that RAND (Research and Development) has found useful in suicide prevention. We embody “Be There” in the primary approach of education and awareness, particularly with Comprehensive Airman Fitness. JB Charleston offers a host of communication and resiliency workshops that reinforce cognitive behavioral paradigms, promoting coping skills as Airmen manage stressors. Programs off-base like Mental Health First Aid (similar to CPR) offer opportunities to become a certified first aider. This allows you to assist those experiencing a mental health crisis while potentially waiting for a first responder or clinician. The secondary approach allows Airmen and civilians to “Be There” by listening non-judgmentally and offering reassurance. “Be There” means providing an opening for conversations to express difficulties, relationship challenges, overwhelming days or recurring dreams/memories before the person becomes clinically suicidal. Genuinely asking questions as simply as “What’s new in your life?”; “How’s school?”; “How do you feel about that?” is the personification of “Be There”. It is allowing authentic display of reality without judgment of capabilities and filling the gap toward making the appropriate referral or warm hand-off to a helping agency. The last step in this approach, clinical referrals, are always necessary when an Airman or family member has suicidal ideations. Mental health clinicians are capable of meeting the psychological and pharmacological needs of patients to reduce suicidality.   

The stigma associated with having a mental illness/crisis in the military is vast. “Be There” challenges us to open our minds, test our core-beliefs, and expose our hearts to the idea that saving a life is part of the mission. “Be There” is a call to action! “Be There” to assess for risk of suicide; “Be There” to lend an ear to challenges; “Be There” to reassure an Airman, civilian, or family member; “Be There” to care enough to save a life. 

1-800-273-8255 - Military Crisis Hotline


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