Recognizing the warning signs of suicide

  • Published
  • By Bruce Huffman
  • 127th Wing

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and Airmen and civilian personnel at the 127th Wing have been learning how to identify the warning signs of suicide and render appropriate assistance to those who may be thinking about harming themselves.

The Air National Guard’s aspirational goal is to have zero suicides by instilling a culture of leadership. Their mission is to reduce suicides through the education of military community members about suicide risks and related behaviors; promotion of health, resilience, and help-seeking behaviors; research, development, and delivery of effective programs and services; and promote access to care.

Even still, death by suicide is occurring at an alarming rate and surprisingly is the second leading cause of death among Americans ages 10 to 34. Studies indicate since Sept. 11, 2001, military suicide rates have been four times higher than combat deaths, which is unthinkable considering we’ve seen more than 20 years of combat since then.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs released a study indicating roughly 22 American veterans commit suicide each day. “You ask why we continue to do suicide awareness training every year? It’s because whatever we’re doing isn’t working so well,” said Ms. Marsha Candela, Director of Psychological Health at Selfridge Air National Guard Base (SANGB).

Suicidal thoughts can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, or background. It’s vitally important to recognize the warning signs of suicide and know what to do to save someone’s life.

It's hard to imagine someone you know committing suicide, especially when there are no outward signs or clues. Some people are very good at hiding their pain, and work very hard to keep up an appearance of wellbeing.

In most cases the decision to commit suicide is made shortly before the attempt, so having awareness of the traumatic life circumstances happening in your wingman’s life could help you recognize subtle clues that something may be pushing them toward suicide.

So why do most people commit suicide? The experts say factors such as relationship troubles, severe depression, money problems, legal issues, traumatic stress, chronic pain or illness, and loss or fear of loss are a few major things to watch for.

According to Candela, some behavioral warning signs someone may be suicidal are impulsiveness and mood swings; irritability; anger; inability to eat, sleep or concentrate; feelings of helplessness or hopelessness; nervousness or anxiety; feeling emotionally numb or detached; inexplicable sadness; confusion or disorientation; loss of work ethic or social functionality; disheveled appearance; giving their possessions away, or making unusual long-term plans.

“Sometimes people like to get their affairs in order before they commit suicide, they clean the house, make sure the pet is taken care of etc., because they don’t want to burden anyone else,” said Candela. Other destructive behaviors to watch for are drug use, excessive drinking, excessive tardiness, and absenteeism.

What can we do if we think someone is thinking about harming themselves? The National Guard mantra on suicide is “To Connect Is To Protect”. it’s up to us to connect with people and make them feel welcome. We must also have the courage to reach out to them if we suspect something is wrong.
A good acronym to remember regarding suicide prevention is A.C.E., which stands for Ask, Care, Escort.

Ask—If you believe someone is suicidal, it’s important to ask them directly what’s going on. Don’t be afraid to engage with them. This will help you determine if they are suicidal.

Care—Care enough to get involved. Listen, empathize, and have resources ready. You might be the only one that can help them. Show them you genuinely care and encourage them to seek help.

Escort—If someone is expressing active signs of hurting themselves you must get involved. Remove things from the area like firearms or pills that they could use to hurt themselves, and escort them to the nearest emergency room, mental health clinic or chaplain, then notify your supervisor or chain of command. Never leave an airman who is having thoughts of suicide alone, even to go to the bathroom.

“If you are exhibiting any of these behaviors and are thinking about suicide, I encourage you to talk to someone you trust and seek help immediately by calling or texting 988. This is a new nationwide crisis number that will connect you directly to mental health, substance abuse and suicide crisis professionals for support 24/7,” said 127th Wing Vice Commander Col. David Spehar. “Always remember there are people you can reach out to for help when you are suffering. No one has to suffer alone.”