Home : Features : 2010 : Suicide Prevention : An Airman's Perspective

Commentary: Suicide Prevention in the Air Force and Air National Guard

By Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Amy Bandel
National Guard Bureau

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (5/14/10) - Suicide is a tragedy that can strike anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Suicide in the military has no preference for whether a member is home or deployed, working hard, or on leave. It has taken the lives of Airmen basic and generals and hurt all who know them.

Guard members of all ranks can help prevent this destructive act. In fact, after all the research is compiled and extensive programs are put in place, it is supervisor intervention and being an astute wingman that saves the most lives.

As America’s war continues, adding psychological and economic stress to its military and civilian population, the Air Force and Air National Guard is developing the best suicide prevention tools available to track, train and prepare its people.

Some mental health organizations say that there are no comprehensive, accurate tracking of suicide among members, whether they were deployed, active duty, or discharged at the time of the incident.

The Air Force and Air National Guard use extensive tracking methods to track patient care and assist potential victims. These methods were outlined by Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. William M. Frasier III when he testified about Air Force suicide programs in July 2009 before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

The Medical Expense and Performance Reporting System tracks both direct patient care activities and prevention services.

The Suicide Event Surveillance System tracks information on all active-duty suicides and suicide attempts in a database that analyzes potential risk factors for personnel.

This form was not used to track Guard members until recently. The Guard is now requesting that families of suicide victims complete the form on a voluntary basis to collect data for prevention research, said Col. Les Hyder, director of the ANG Chaplain Corps.

An interagency initiative is also being developed with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide a smooth transition to follow healthcare from initial field response and stabilization care to evacuation to military or VA facilities.

“Over the last three or four years, we’ve started to track Air National Guard Title 32 members. Even more recently, tracking tools for civilian employees have also been added,” said Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Muncy, the command chief master sergeant of the Air National Guard

Title 32 members’ mental health are tracked using pre and post-deployment checks, followed by VA checks for long term monitoring, said Hyder.

There are those who think Airmen still fear the stigma of admitting to having a problem and avoid getting help.

The Air Force Suicide Prevention Program began in 1997 and leads the way in the area of suicide prevention. It is one of 12 evidence-based suicide prevention programs identified by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It consists of 11 specific policy and training elements, part of which deals with stigma reduction.

One of the elements is the Limited Privilege Suicide Prevention Program, where at-risk patients have increased confidentiality when they see a mental health provider. The Limited Patient-Psychotherapist Privilege was established in 1999, limiting the release of patient information to legal authorities during Uniform Code of Military Justice proceedings, according to the AFSPP.

The Military One Step program has helped reduce stigma by providing 12 free counseling sessions to concerned members.

The ANG is rolling out a revitalized suicide prevention program scheduled for unveiling at the 2010 Safety Conference in June, explained Hyder.

The program is based on the Air Force ACE program that stands for Ask about wingmen, Care about wingman, and Escort wingmen to help. It features a commanders’ tool kit and pocket sized, suicide prevention quick book for all Guardmembers.

Some members still are afraid of getting help, but the Wingman program, designed to help supervisors and workers with skills to assess the signs of suicide in their co-workers, has been part of the largest change in mental readiness, said Muncy.

Some people are concerned that suicide rates are not getting better as the war drags on.

The AFSPP has experienced a 28 percent rate reduction in suicides from 1997 to 2008. The pre-AFSPP rate from 1987 to 1997 was 13.5 suicides per 100,000 Airmen. The post AFSPP rate from 1998 to 2008 was 9.8 per 100,000 Airmen.

Most leaders feel that rates for Air Force and Air Guard are close to the averages for the civilian population. The reasons for suicides are predominantly relationship issues, financial hardships, legal problems, and psychological health. In 2009, only 21 percent of suicide victims had deployed in the past year.

The quality of people in the Air National Guard is top notch and although they face increased hardship with deployments and their other military responsibilities, the rate of suicide in this demographic is about equal to the rest of the nation, said Muncy.

There are thorough, effective suicide prevention programs in place along with solid methods of tracking patients within the Air National Guard. Any increase in the rates of suicide within the Air Guard should be a signal to be immediately addressed, since they are such a high quality, highly prepared force.

A variety of differing statistical data exists for suicide rates. The ANG has recently adopted one place to track official suicide statistics in ANG/SG, the medical directorate, to make sure there is one correct data source.

If we continue the tracking, training, and treatment methods put into place by the Air Force and Air National Guard, it is proven we can reduce the incidents of this tragic killer. Improvements in these areas are constantly being developed, using the latest tools and research available.

The most important asset in the toolbox is you. No matter how much is spent on programs, the most valuable tool we have in the intervention of suicide is the first line supervisor and wingman. Take your training seriously and apply what you learn, the life you save could be that of the friend right beside you.