It’s all about Wingmen...

  • Published
  • By Howdy Stout
  • Tinker Publice Affairs
Everybody needs a wingman.

"That's because friends and co-workers are often the first to see emotional and behavioral changes in people contemplating suicide," says Capt. Jerri Turner, a psychologist with the 72nd Medical Group's Mental Health Flight.

"We become very familiar with people and their moods," she explains. "We encourage co-workers and supervisors to be aware of what's going on with their folks and to ask them questions or offer assistance if they notice behavioral or emotional changes with their workers." 

More than 30,000 people in the United States commit suicide annually. But because the majority of those who do it don't seek medical health care first, it is often up to family, friends, co-workers and leadership to first spot the warning signs. 

"There are many different reasons why someone might contemplate suicide and often there's a combination of factors that come into play," says Captain Turner. Some of which include severe relationship problems, occupational stress, financial difficulties, legal issues, alcohol or other substance abuse, and depression or other mental illness.

Although suicides in the military make headlines, Captain Turner says the rate among those in uniform is not any higher than the general population. In fact, the Air Force in general and Tinker leadership in particular takes an active stance on suicide prevention, urging those in need to overcome any societal stigma and seek professional help.

"A lot of people are hesitant to come to Mental Health," Captain Turner says, adding that there is a stigma attached to seeking professional mental health care. "It takes a lot for people to make it through our doors. Some see it as a weakness. But we see it as a strength."

Others see it as a career "buster" when in reality by putting off getting help, job performance is likely to be affected resulting in negative impact on career. It's the impaired performance that impacts the job, not seeking help. Based on a study conducted in 2003 only 3 percent of those individuals who self-referred to mental health had some kind of career impacting recommendation. Getting help early can save your life and career.

Tinker has an Integrated Delivery System that is a collaboration of various helping agencies on base some of which include the Mental Health Flight, the Airman and Family Readiness Center, the Health and Wellness Center, and the Chapel. 

The IDS mission is to integrate base helping agencies into one seamless team that provides the right help at the right time to active duty military, family members, DOD civilians, and retirees. Captain Turner says the IDS delivers community care through proactive and coordinated programs and services and one significant area of focus is suicide prevention awareness.

"We all work together to enhance our community and we know what each other provides so that instead of duplicating services we focus on promoting resources and services," Captain Turner says.

"Because everyone has stress, a major focus of counseling is to promote healthy ways of dealing with it. Some individuals, however, use maladaptive strategies to deal with stress which can include the use of drugs and alcohol or other unhealthy ways of coping. Some even resort to self-injury in an effort to replace emotional pain with physical pain," says Captain Turner. Oftentimes, people are unaware that they are using an unhealthy means of coping.

"That's difficult because we're pretty good at recognizing it in other people and maybe not be as good at recognizing our own maladaptive coping behaviors," Captain Turner says. "A lot of people aren't aware of their own unhealthy behaviors and it takes the community, those who know us, to make us aware."

Suicide is the third-highest cause of death among those 15 to 24 years of age. For many young Airmen, the Air Force is their first time away from home. Feeling isolated and alone can lead to depression, fertile ground for suicidal thoughts.

The key is getting Airmen connected, Captain Turner said. Showing Airmen that there are things to do and people to meet can often overcome that sense of isolation and loneliness. "It makes them more willing to reach out," she says.

For those contemplating suicide, they see ending their lives as the only alternative to ongoing emotional pain.

"They feel like it's the only solution to their problems. Often times individuals feel as if hope is lost and see no resolution to their difficulties" Captain Turner says. "And what we emphasize is that it's a permanent solution to a short-term problem." Individuals who have attempted suicide often report intense emotional pain, feelings of worthlessness, no meaning in life, isolation, and despair.

Because friends and co-workers are often the first to notice emotional and behavioral changes in colleagues, Captain Turner urges everyone to be aware of changes in those around them, changes that might indicate depression or suicidal thoughts.

"As a community we cannot ignore the signs and symptoms of suicide," she says. As wingmen we may have to ask difficult and direct questions about suicide. "Asking the question 'Have you been thinking about killing yourself?' can allow someone who has been contemplating suicide the opportunity to connect with someone and get the appropriate services and resources needed."