Caring over Knowing – Approaching Suicide Prevention

  • Published
  • By Maj. David Tubman
  • 52nd Medical Support Squadron

When helping a Wingman in crisis, how much you care matters more than how much you know.

September is Suicide Prevention Month, and different organizations across the world will raise awareness and promote information and resources via events and media outlets. However, if you were to ask the average Airman, they might tell you every month feels like Suicide Prevention Month.

That’s understandable, given how our leaders at every level, rightly, deeply care about this topic. There are constant efforts to get important information and training out at all levels and at various 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.

Yet despite the importance of the topic and the wealth of information provided, one could feel overwhelmed about what exactly they should look out for and what they should do if they are concerned about a Wingman in crisis.

Someone may 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 or frustration and could even result in feeling helpless and ultimately lead to inaction.

Seeking to know as much as you can about this topic can be helpful. But when it comes to making a difference in someone’s life, it’s less about how much you know and more about how much you care and how you show it to your Wingman.

The Air Force updated the suicide prevention training format about a year ago to a model using commander-led, peer-facilitated discussion groups to replace the previous computer-based training format. We now contribute to each other’s training through direct interaction, as opposed to doing it on our own.

One of the main reasons for this switch was to reflect the research showing 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 to learn about the unique challenges and difficulties our Wingman have, which guides in how to best help.

These connections to others are such a key factor when coping with a crisis 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. For example, 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.

When we’re upset, our minds – through no fault of our own – 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 accurate, but is actually overly focused on the negative.

While in this state, a person could view suicide as 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 others may be better off without them. And if in isolation, we are more likely to take overly negative thoughts seriously, which can lead to tragedy.

But being involved in trusting relationships can allow for others to step in and help us to expand our viewpoint to include information our minds might have 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.  

Please do not underestimate the importance of both caring and showing that you care for others at all times, 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.

Remember: caring for each other is an ongoing process; something 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:

-National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Commercial 00800-273-TALK (8255) or DSN: 118

-Mental Health Clinic (Walk-in hours from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)

-Chaplains (Commercial 0656-61-6711, DSN: 452-6711)

-Your first sergeant or ANY medical facility.