ARLINGTON, Va. - National Guard and Defense Department leaders are using September, which is National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, to reinforce to service members ways they can prevent suicide and actions to take if someone reaches out for help.
As the month winds down, the Army on Thursday conducted a suicide-prevention stand down worldwide. The event focused on promoting good health, teammate involvement, risk reduction and resilience training.
"This is such an important topic [because] we are losing Soldiers every day to suicide," said Army Lt. Col. Denise Walker, the Army National Guard Resiliency, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention branch chief. "We [in the Army National Guard] want to figure out what the problem is and how we can come up with solutions to improve the lives of our Soldiers."
But, Walker said, figuring out exactly what the problem is presents a challenge.
"There is such a huge variance in the age, rank, and issue behind why the Soldier turned to suicide or had a behavioral health issue," Walker said, so it is hard to gauge exactly why Soldiers are committing suicide.
Walker said arming Soldiers with the coping skills needed to handle the stressors of deployment, losing a loved one, unemployment or other significant life-changing events is the best tool to combat behavioral health issues like suicide.
Command Chief Master Sgt. Denise Jelinski-Hall, the senior enlisted advisor for the National Guard Bureau, said one tool that leaders can use to facilitate the flow of information is the leaders' guide to resilience. Developed by the National Guard, it is a tool that can be used to help build resilience in Soldiers and Airmen, and assist leaders with what risk factors to look for when interacting with their subordinates.
Awareness month allows leaders to ensure they are getting information to the lowest Soldiers out there, she said. "A lot of times that can be a challenge."
Distance can also be a challenge, Jelinski-Hall said, because National Guard units are often geographically dispersed, unlike active component units that are often centered on larger military installations.
To combat that challenge, Walker said Army Guard units especially do a good job working within their communities to get Soldiers the needed resources.
"Our units do a really good job through community partnerships with local agencies such as departments of mental health, and hospitals that volunteer their time or even counselors," she said. "Our units only see their Soldiers twice a month, and coupled with the dependency of external resources … it deters Soldiers."
And there are other, outside resources as well, Walker said.
"[The National Guard] also has programs like Vets4Warriors and other national hotline resources where [service members] can call in anonymously and get help," Walker said. "Of course, there are resources at Military OneSource as well."
Air National Guard officials said distance can be a challenge for Airmen as well. To help wing commanders get the resources their Airmen need, the Air Guard has placed licensed directors of psychological health at each wing. These professionals serve as an advisor to the commander on psychological health, prevention, education, crisis management, assessment, referral, and case management.
The Air Guard has also launched the Wingman Project site and mobile app, digital tools that officials said Airmen can use to learn more about suicide prevention and awareness.
These resources assist Army and Air Guard officials to build resiliency among Soldiers and Airmen.
"And the key to resiliency is building better coping skills," Walker said. "But the emphasis of leadership plays a major role in all of this."
"Commanders really have to emphasize that … this is a priority for them and for the leadership," she said. "There is a need out there and there is a problem out there across the Guard, and we all have a role in helping to stop suicides in the … Guard across the nation."