Suicide intervention – getting past the immediate crisis

Written by  //  July 15, 2011  //  Feature Stories

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (July 15, 2011) – Suicide seems like an overwhelming problem in the military: the suicide rate in the Army National Guard nearly doubled from 2009 to 2010.

It’s so overwhelming that many Soldiers and Airmen think there’s nothing they can do to stop it.

The fact is, many suicides are preventable and you don’t have to have a degree in psychology to help someone who’s in trouble.

“My experience with suicide intervention from when I was deployed and also as a minister has been that if you get people through the crisis that they’re dealing with, they’ll be able to see more clearly,” said Maj. Jeffrey Peppers, the full-time support chaplain for the Florida National Guard. “They may need psychological help independent of that situation, but often just getting through that moment of crisis is just what people need.”

The Army uses the acronym “ACE” to train Soldiers to intervene when they recognize that somebody might be suicidal. ACE stands for Ask, Care, Escort. This training equips Soldiers with the skills necessary to assist a potentially suicidal buddy by teaching them to recognize suicidal behavior and the warning signs that accompany it. The Air Force has a similar program called the “Wingman Project” which encourages Airmen to act as Wingmen to take care of their fellow Airmen who might be at risk of suicide.

“When you look at ‘ACE,’ if I was to give somebody advice as to what they should do, I couldn’t come up with much more for an immediate first aid,” said Peppers.

Talking about suicide can be uncomfortable, but suicide prevention training teaches Soldiers and Airmen to “Ask” uncomfortable questions when speaking to someone who might be contemplating suicide.

• Have the courage to ask your battle buddy about his or her suicidal thoughts.

• Know the warning signs you might see in yourself or battle buddy if he or she is suicidal. Look for any outward sign that shows a deviation from your battle buddy’s usual self.

• When the warning signs are present, it is imperative to ask your battle buddy directly; “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”

“Sometimes people need to talk about what their problems are,” said Peppers. “Notice it says ‘ask,’ not ‘answer.’”

Listening is an important part of the “Care” step in suicide intervention. Many times, simply listening to someone in crisis can make a difference.

• Care for your battle buddy by understanding that your battle buddy may be in pain. Active listening may produce relief.

• Calmly control the situation: do not use force. Take action by removing any lethal means, such as weapons or pills.

“They don’t need their problems solved,” said Peppers. “They need to be heard. The number one thing that people need is a friend. It’s not a matter of what you say, in fact, sometimes it’s better to just shut up.”

Once Guardsmen have determined that a fellow Guardsman is in danger, it is imperative to “escort” that person to someone who is qualified to give the kind of help he or she needs.

• Escort your battle buddy immediately to your chain of command, Chaplain, or behavioral health professional.

• Stay with your buddy until he or she receives appropriate help. Don’t leave your battle buddy alone.

There are several resources available for Guardsmen who are thinking of harming themselves or who may just need someone to talk to. Chaplains can provide confidential assistance, as well as medical professionals. Each state National Guard has a director of psychological health who can also provide counseling and referrals for Soldiers.

For immediate assistance, Guardsmen can contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647.

“We all have troubles, but with the right tools – whether it’s someone’s spirituality or their family or a whole network of support – with the right tools, we can overcome,” said Peppers. “That’s not to say that there aren’t giants that we go up against; resilience is just overcoming those giants with the tools we use.”

Note: This story is the first in a series of stories about mental health programs and suicide prevention.