On a Suicide Mission

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Ringing in the year signals a new beginning for many people as they pursue resolutions to make positive changes in their lives.

For others, the resolutions are of a much darker nature: to end their lives.

In the first weeks of 2002, several active-duty members in Air Education and Training Command attempted suicide.

One succeeded. A technical training instructor assigned to an AETC squadron in North Carolina died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at his off-base residence in mid-January. Then in April, another airman in Florida took his own life. He hung himself.

suicide is the second leading cause of death for active-duty Air Force people, surpassed only by unintentional injury. In the United States, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death. Awareness of suicide and the risk factors associated with suicide are key to the prevention of such loss of life and its traumatic consequences for families and communities, said Lt. Col. Rick Campise, a clinical psychologist who heads the Air Force suicide prevention program.

Within a few weeks after the training instructor shot himself, airmen at three AETC units had tried to end their lives by overdosing on prescription and over-the-counter medicine. Several more suicide attempts have followed.

The suicide and attempted suicides followed an all-too-familiar demographic pattern. In 2001, 35 Air Force people committed suicide, according to figures from the Air Education and Training Command surgeon general. They were all men. Seventeen were married, 12 were single and six were divorced. relationship troubles and work, as well as legal and financial problems, were significant risk factors.

Fourteen of the 35 visited life skills support centers in the last year. Twenty-nine of the suicides occurred off base, and 22 used a firearm, according to surgeon general statistics.

A single suicide is one too many, according to Lt. Gen. Paul Carlton, Air Force surgeon general. “Suicide is our most preventable cause of death,” he said. “Leadership and mentorship are our two most important tools in preventing these tragic losses.”

Carlton has been trying to combat suicides by instilling in every Air Force member that It’s a community problem. That philosophy is the basis for the Air Force’s community approach to suicide prevention.

Air Force members must attend annual suicide awareness and prevention briefings. These sessions are designed to prepare people to recognize the warning signs of suicide and to provide notice that help is available to people contemplating suicide.

“We have to stop thinking of suicide prevention as something only mental health professionals do,” Carlton said in an Air Force News story in 2001. “All of us have a responsibility to our fellow airmen and co-workers. Recognizing when a person is having problems and actively encouraging that person to seek help is a vital part of suicide prevention.” Campise gives the following advice.

How do you know when someone is in significant distress?

A misconception about suicide is that it occurs with little or no warning. There are often many clues that someone may be in distress or at risk.

The most commonly associated factor with suicide in the Air Force is problems in intimate relationships, including marital and dating relationships. Other high risk factors that should alert us to vulnerability include abuse of alcohol or other substances, financial and legal problems, few social ties or loneliness, prolonged unmanageable stress, and feelings of depression or worthlessness.

A key signal of distress is obsessing or talking about death, dying, and violence, as well as purchasing firearms or other weapons. This runs counter to another misconception: those who talk about suicide will not do it.

Other significant signs that someone may be in need of assistance include withdrawing from friends and family or suddenly making amends with others, sudden changes in behavior, loss of interest in work or usual activities, and giving away possessions.

What can you do to help?

Talking with someone directly about suicide is one of the most helpful things you can do. Most people contemplating suicide are seeking an end to the emotional pain they are experiencing, not an end to life. Talking with them may open doors to assistance to help them through their distress.

Some buy into the myth that if we talk about suicide with someone, it will give that person the idea to harm himself, or if someone has decided to harm himself there’s nothing we can do to change his mind. This belief isn’t only wrong, it also creates barriers to preventing suicide.

The key to the suicide prevention is early intervention. Seeking assistance and encouraging others to do the same when having difficulty coping helps prevent more serious problems from developing.

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