Connections, resources spotlighted for suicide prevention

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  • By Christian Tabak, Staff Writer



Tinker Air Force Base’s Community Action Team has been increasing its efforts  to connect Airmen with resources as part of a coordinated movement to support the Air Force’s goal of supporting Airmen during Suicide Prevention Month in the face of rising suicide rates.

More than simply addressing the topic of suicide itself, CAT’s programming is geared toward holistically addressing suicide and the various factors that contribute to it. Using their community partners and available resources on base, such as the Mental Health Clinic, the goal for the month is to ensure that awareness for suicide prevention is something that lasts year-round, according to Juan Flores, Tinker AFB’s suicide prevention manager.

“This is for us to recognize that we need to do this on a more ongoing basis and how do we get all of our folks connected and to be effective bystanders,” Flores said. “We need to look out for one another and it is through connecting Airmen with resources, connecting them with their community and connecting them with each other that we will be able to address these issues.”

Flores, who also works as the violence prevention integrator, said that fostering connections is one of the single greatest ways to address suicide prevention and that many of the resources they direct Airmen to provide that.

One of the single greatest resources Flores recommended is the installation’s Mental Health Clinic, which provides psychiatry and counseling services for Airmen. More than just for Airmen who are in a crisis situation or are already feeling suicidal, Flores said that the Mental Health Clinic is an option for anyone who feels the need to meet with a counselor. The clinic is available for Airmen, while non-active duty beneficiaries may find options through Tricare for mental health check-ups.

“Mental health is just like physical health,” Flores said. “Just in the same way you would get a check-up with your doctor, this provides an opportunity to do the same for your mental health and address any stressors in your life.”

Addressing stressors, such as finances, relationship issues or anything related to substance reliance, is a key component of the approach CAT is taking to promoting awareness, according to Tinker Community Support Coordinator Karen Blackwell.

Regularly scheduled classes such as Health and Happiness, Power to Change, Personal Goal Setting for a Healthy Lifestyle and others provide Airmen a supportive environment to address issues that might be burdening them.

“This is about more than just suicide,” Blackwell said. “It’s about addressing everything that might be contributing to these feelings as well.”

A highly successful program that Flores said they have been implementing is training volunteers in Mental Health First Aid, a national public education program sponsored by the National Council for Behavioral Health. These eight-hour classes provide demonstrations through role-playing, simulations and other activities to provide support on how to address warning signs for specific types of illnesses, such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Like in training for CPR or other physical first aid certifications, MHFA participants are prepared to interact with an individual in crisis and trained to support these individuals by connecting them to resources or serving as a resource his or herself. A key component is that they are not trained to diagnose or to provide counseling or therapy; instead, they are trained to provide practical bystander support.

“It teaches you how to support someone day-to-day with a mental health disorder, as well as if they are in crisis,” said Blackwell. “The more individuals we get trained in Mental Health First Aid across our installation, the more we have people on the front lines that can help people. It is another way to build those vital connections.”

Already, Blackwell said that the program has trained 327 people and that they are currently offering five classes, all of which are fully booked at 25 participants per class. Blackwell added that training and other classes like this are a great way to address one of the biggest obstacles facing Airmen in addressing suicide prevention: Airmen’s concern over how they appear within their unit.

More than the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide, Flores said that Airmen struggle more with concerns over how reaching out on these issues impact their standing among their teammates. By training Airmen in MHFA and by taking measures such as offering classes to a whole group rather than expecting Airmen to come to the classes themselves provides an environment where those concerns are dispelled.

These efforts to address suicide come in conjunction with orders from the Air Force to have each of its wings hold a resilience tactical pause to address rising suicide rates. The instruction, which came from Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, gives wings until Sept. 15 to host a pause.

While each wing is given its own autonomy for how to conduct these pauses, the goal of these events are designed to allow each wing an opportunity to break from the daily grind of Air Force life and focus on the Airmen and their well-being, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright said in an official video posted to social media

“Our teammates are taking their own lives,” Wright said. “We lose more Airmen to suicide than any other single enemy, even more than combat.”

Tinker’s 72nd Air Base Wing hosted their own resilience tactical pause Sept. 4 with a series of sessions that allowed Airmen to meet and connect with one another. Other units brought in guest speakers from organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project and similar activities that would give Airmen a break from their regular daily routine.

This heightened awareness on suicide comes at a point when the Air Force is projected to reach its highest point in 11 years. In their quarterly report, the Department of Defense announced a total of 325 active duty members took their lives, including 58 Marines, 68 Sailors, 60 Airmen and 139 Soldiers.

Oklahoma is ranked 8th in the nation for suicide and Flores said that it is vital that Tinker work with off-base community partners to address the topic, as it is something more than just an AF United States military problem.

“One suicide is too many. We want to make sure we are getting to the root of what the issue is,” Flores said. “We want to make sure [Airmen] know what helping resources are available and that we are getting our community to help them.”