Caring over knowing

  • Published
  • By Maj. David S. Tubman
  • 52nd Medical Operations Squadron
When helping a wingman in crisis, how much you care matters more than how much you know.

September is Suicide Prevention Month, which is when different organizations across the world raise awareness and promote information and resources via events and media outlets. If you were to ask the average Airman, however, they might tell you that in the Air Force, every month feels like Suicide Prevention Month. Because our leaders at every level rightly care deeply about this topic, there are constant efforts to get important information and training out at all levels and at many different points in our career paths. These trainings provide lots of useful information about the many different risk factors, warning signs, and recommendations for what to do when someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or behavior.

Given the importance of the topic and the wealth of information provided, one could find themselves feeling overwhelmed about what exactly they are supposed to be looking out for and what they are to actually do if they are concerned about a wingman in crisis. It is probably not unusual for someone to ask themselves, "Do I know enough to be helpful to someone in crisis?" or "What do I do if someone actually is feeling suicidal?" Being overly entangled in this type of questioning can incite fear, frustration, and could even result in feeling helpless and ultimately lead to inaction.

While seeking to know as much as you can about the topic can be helpful, when it comes to the point of making a difference in someone's life, it's important to remember that what matters most in critical moments is less about how much you know, and more about how much you care and how you show it to your wingman.

The Air Force has recently implemented a new training format using Commander-led, peer-facilitated discussion groups to replace the previous computer-based training format. Rather than doing the training on our own, we now actually contribute to each other's training through direct interaction. One of the main reasons for this switch was to reflect the research showing that the quality of our relationships and our sense of support from others is a highly important factor in predicting our ability to move forward through difficult situations in life. Being in trusting, caring relationships allows us the opportunity to learn about the unique challenges and difficulties our wingman have, which guides in how to best help.

One of the reasons that being connected to others is such a key factor when coping with a crisis is because of a process called "cognitive constriction," or a form of emotional tunnel vision. The quality of our thoughts is greatly affected by our emotional state. When we are feeling sad, anxious, or depressed, we are likely to think about ourselves, the world, others, our past, and our future in a sad, anxious, or depressed way. Through no fault of our own, when we are upset, our minds automatically filter out information that is neutral, happy, or otherwise, so we are often left with an unbalanced viewpoint of our situation that might feel very accurate, but is actually overly-focused on the negative. While in this state, suicide could seem like the best means of responding to problems in life that otherwise seem unsolvable.

It is also not uncommon for an individual in crisis to have intense thoughts that they do not belong, or that other's may be better off without them. In isolation, we are more likely to take overly negative thoughts seriously, which can lead to tragedy. Being involved in trusting relationships can allow for others to step in and help us to expand our viewpoint to include information that our minds had filtered out.

The involvement of others can help us see our situation from different angles. This process can free up our range of problem solving options to include choices other than self-harm. 

Do not underestimate the importance of caring and showing that you care  for others at all times, and especially to someone in need. The Air Force promotes the use of the ACE acronym to remind us of the importance of Asking (directly about thought of self-harm), Caring, and Escorting our wingmen in crisis to someone else who can help (e.g., a first sergeant, supervisor, chaplain, or a medical facility, to include Mental Health). Among the three, I would say that "Caring" is the most important component, as it enables the other two tenets of the acronym. And remember that caring for each other is an ongoing process; something that happens before, during, and also after points of crisis.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please use the ACE steps, and the following resources: Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 00800-1273-TALK (8255) or DSN: 118; Mental Health Clinic (Walk-in hours from 0730 to 1630), chaplains (COMM: 0656-61-6711, DSN: 452-6711), your first sergeant, or any medical facility.