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‘Be There’— Suicide Prevention, often a difficult topic

By Regan E. Morris MSW, LCSW | 315th Airlift Wing Psychological Health director | Sept. 17, 2018

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. —

“Be there” is the official Department of Defense theme of this year’s Suicide Prevention Campaign and September is Suicide Prevention Month. So, I was staring at the web page www.dspo.mil/2018SPM, looking for inspiration, when a visitor came in my room and pointed at a photo on my desk of Brig. Gen. James Fontanella, my first commander in late 2013. Serendipity! A story came to mind that encompassed the "Be There" theme. It started with one phone call and some knowledgeable, compassionate individuals who formed a telephone chain across several states to intervene in the life of a warrior and his family. 

I was in my unfurnished office, with only an old desk and a telephone. The phone rang. It was the Yellow Ribbon coordinator, retired Chief Master Sgt. Harold Vinson. He stated to me he had  a distressing call from a spouse in another state who had attended a Yellow Ribbon event and was very concerned for her husband over a serious argument they had the night before. The spouse described her husband’s behavior from the night before, involving a lot of alcohol (which will be coming up again), a gun fired in the front yard, shouting matches with friends and  passing out with his gun hanging on the bed where the child could reach it. He was in crisis.  

The next morning he took his gun, put in in his car and told his wife he was driving up north to go “visit his parents.” We jumped into action. I found out his assigned unit and Chief Vinson found his commander in another state. From there, an alert went out to police and highway patrol across several states. In the meantime, we all aged a bit while waiting. I am sure many of you reading this have been there, waiting for the outcome of someone, adult or child, you love who is in distress.

We received a call back from his commander who said “We have him off the road, and rightly so ma’am.” Like many calls and face to face situations, I don’t have any more details. That is the nature of this work sometimes. I have faith that the first call and subsequent actions placed the Airman in all the right circumstances to have a good outcome.

However when it comes to the issue of Suicide Prevention -- suicide the word, a suicide attempt or a death by suicide -- it is a difficult subject and task to deal with and teach. The way it has been taught has changed over the years, however as a clinical social worker who has been in this field now for 33 years, it seems to me it’s the weight of the topic that is hard to deal with. 

When asking a military audience if anyone has known a friend in middle, high school or in the military who has committed or attempted suicide to please stand up or raise their hand, the response is noteworthy and the energy is palatable.

Although this started with a positive story, it also indicated some of the most known risk factors: family stress, post deployment stress, relationship issues, alcohol issues and access to a firearm. Military members often have a host of things happening due to wear and tear of the body. A limited list includes injuries from strenuous work, injuries from working out, use of heavy equipment, combat exposure, sleep disorders, untreated pain, work place stressors and living in this crazy, stressful world.  In general many people today are more anxious.  I know, pass the beer, right?  

The Reserve has issues that are unique compared to active duty Airmen, including juggling full-time employment and often already being veterans of one or more wars from various branches of the military. Reserve often has the same demands exactly as active  duty, packed into just 12 weekends, along with deployments, civilian employment, traveling here from other states and trying to balance a family life.

Commanders at Joint Base Charleston, the Community Action Board and members of the Community Action Team gather together to assess the risk and protective factors of the base area and population, along with the current trends of the base to assess the needs of all in terms of services that aid readiness.   The community action team is made up of base agencies that service base wide populations in a variety of life needs.

The commanders carry this weight on their minds and hearts every day because of the caring and selfless service by which they live their lives. And when you lose a service member, family member of civilian employee to death by suicide, it’s a severe shock. People want quick answers to what is really a very complex question.

What helps when a suicide or an attempt happens?  Reactions vary by individual. Take it one day at a time. Some need medication; but not all. Spirituality, meditation and mindfulness helps. Try 20 minutes a day enjoying nature, comedy, exercise, breathing to center yourself, pets, fishing, riding your motorcycle, any number of activities. Talking with a professional counselor or chaplain, using on base resources, can be an important aid, as can other resources. Veteran’s peer to peer coaching can be located at www.betherepeersupport.org. Alcoholics Anonymous remains the largest fellowship of its kind. Meetings for AA are held in over 170 countries. Visit www.aa.org for more information. Military One Source has just expanded their resources and services in this direction and does not write medical notes in your records. Call 1-800-342-9647 or visit www.militaryonesource.mil. And there is always the Crisis Hotline for Military at 800-273-8255.

“Be there.” Know that it has a positive impact. Do whatever it takes and don’t forget, as the person who may be the one doing the heavy lifting in these situations, that commanders, 1st shirts, family members, spouses, counselors, and chaplains will in turn “be there” for you!