You are the front line

  • Published
  • By Lee Chaix McDonough
  • 52nd Fighter Wing, Community Support Coordinator
"Have you had any thoughts of hurting or killing yourself?"

In my work as a mental health provider, I have asked that question hundreds of times to hundreds of clients and, without a doubt, it's the hardest question I ever have to ask. It never feels natural or comfortable to ask a client about suicide. And why should it? Suicide and self-harm have historically been a taboo subject in our culture, and asking feels intensely intimate, even intrusive.

So I'm not surprised that when I talk to people about suicide prevention, the general response is, "But it's so hard to talk about. And I'm not even sure what to do."

Yes, you're right. Suicide prevention is an incredibly difficult thing to talk about. But that's the very reason we should be talking more about it. That's the first step towards preventing suicide in our community.

Here's why: People who are having thoughts of suicide often feel alone and isolated. Perhaps they are having problems in a relationship, battling addiction, or experiencing depression or other mood disorders. Whatever challenges they are facing, one thing is sure - they believe they are alone in their struggle.

So when we don't talk about suicide and suicide prevention, when we shroud it in silence and shove it into the shadows, we unintentionally send a message to those who most need our help: Don't talk about it. You are alone in this. And that message reinforces their sense of isolation, which can have devastating consequences.

As a community, it's time to bring suicide out of the shadows and address it head on. It's time to have an honest conversation about suicide prevention and what we can do to help our fellow Airmen in their time of need.

We know that one of the primary protective factors against suicide is having strong family and community support. Being stationed overseas, most of us are separated from our families of origin, which means we have to rely on our community. Thus, it's even more important to be there for each other, and to support each other during times of adversity.

At Spangdahlem, we are fortunate to have numerous helping agencies staffed by outstanding professionals who are trained and ready to help in a crisis: Mental Health, Chapel, Family Advocacy, Military Family Life Consultants, ADAPT. We are surrounded by support. But these agencies are should be the second line in suicide prevention. The first line of support is you. Active duty or civilian, officer or enlisted, local national or American, colleague or friend, you are the front line in suicide prevention and early intervention.

To that end, there are a few simple things you can do to prevent suicide in our community. First and foremost, we each need to take a genuine interest in the people with whom we live and work, and make a sincere effort to connect with our fellow Sabers. It may be the Airman you supervise, the person who lives down the hall in your dorm, or a fellow spouse in your squadron. Reach out; get to know them; be present; and by doing so, you'll be fostering connection, fighting isolation, and building community.

Secondly, let's explore ways in which we can develop and encourage resiliency in ourselves and in our community. Remember, resiliency does not mean avoiding or minimizing hardship and difficulty. Rather, resiliency is how we handle difficult situations, and the extent to which we allow negative experiences to define who we are. It requires us to challenge our negative thought processes, and to acknowledge that even when our world seems out of control and hopeless, we maintain the power to choose how we respond.

Resiliency is a skill, and as with any skill, it takes practice and requires continuous development. This can happen formally, such as through trainings conducted by our Master Resilience Trainers at First Term Airman's Course or Heartlink, or at the squadron level during a commander's call or core group meeting. Likewise, developing resilience can happen during our day-to-day activities - a mentorship discussion, a spouses' group meeting, or a one-on-one conversation with a friend.

Small steps like these have a significant effect on preventing suicide in our community. So take action. Reach out to someone new in your community. Talk about the tough things. And if you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, don't wait. Contact a mental health professional or chaplain, or call the Military Crisis Line at 00800-1273-8255 or 118.