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September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, but some events this past week motivated me to publish this article early.  I served in the United States Air Force for 28 years, retiring six years ago. Last week the Air Force took the extraordinary step of declaring a global operational stand down to focus on suicide after its 78th Airmen took his own life; 30 more than this time last year. In a video message to Airmen, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Kaleth Wright, explained, “We lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy. Even more than combat. Seventy eight of our brothers and sisters have given up on life this year alone.”

In the Marine Corps, 2018 was the worst year ever with 77 suicides and 354 attempts. General Robert Neller, who recently retired as commandant, reflected that, in four years, he had lost 224 Marines to suicide and only four to combat.  The military is not unique and mirrors the challenges all communities across the United States are facing.

Learn the Warning Signs and Risk Factors

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, taking the lives of approximately 47,000 Americans each year, or nearly 130 per day. Indeed, none of us are immune to feelings of sadness, loneliness or even desperation. Many I care for deeply battle these feelings every day. I have also lost wingmen and a family member to suicide. I suspect we all know someone who has struggled, or ourselves have felt this way. It starts with understanding the warning signs and risk factors, and most of all, taking action; yourself or for someone else.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), lists the following behavioral warning signs: 

  • Social withdrawal from friends, family, community
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Talking, writing, or thinking about death
  • Impulsive or reckless behavior
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Increased alcohol and drug use
  • Threats or comments about liking themselves

NAMI also outlines the risk factors because research has found that more than half of people (54%) who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition. These risk factors include:

  • A family history of suicide
  • Substance abuse – drugs and alcohol can result in mental highs and lows that exacerbate suicidal thoughts
  • Intoxication – more than one in three people who die from suicide are found to be currently under the influence
  • Access to firearms
  • A serious or chronic medical illness
  • Gender – although more women than men attempt suicide, men are four times more likely to die by suicide
  • A history of trauma or abuse
  • Prolonged stress
  • Isolation
  • Age – people under age 24 or above age 65 are at a higher risk for suicide
  • A recent tragedy or loss
  • Agitation and sleep deprivation

Know What to Do

There are many reasons a person might try to take their own life, but we can certainly contribute to helping each other and ourselves.  We should never be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help.  Lexie Manion, a mental health advocate, encourages us to “treat yourself as you would a friend (or loved one).”  She adds, “Think if a close friend were struggling with triggers. What would you tell them? How would you talk to them?”  My number one rule in life is never assume you’ve had a worse day than someone else.  If a person I know behaves out of character, I never hesitate to ask, “Are you ok?,” even if they have offended me. You never know what the response may be. Perhaps that simple question and expression of caring could be the difference in what a person might do. If a person does demonstrate the behaviors or risk factors above, never be afraid to take actions.  If you think someone is in immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  • Stay with the person until help arrives.
  • Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  • Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.
  • If you or someone you know is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Be Kind. Always.

I’ll leave you with a personal story. Some years ago when my youngest son was a sophomore in high school, we received a letter from the school district informing parents a student had taken his own life. He was 15 and the Superintendent encouraged parents to discuss it with their children and reach out if they had concerns or needed help.  We discussed it with our son and asked him what he thought would leave a young person to feel so lonely and desperate that they would take their own life. This was eight years ago, but his response has stuck with me to this day. He suggested that young people today aren’t as resilient as perhaps in my day. He also suggested the constant bombardment of social media, and sometimes harassment or pressure in those mediums, challenged what resiliency they have.

I thought at the time it was an insightful perspective from a 15-year-old. Today, our exposure to so many media forums has grown exponentially and I can’t help but wonder if it contributes as a risk factor for suicide. I’ll leave it to experts to formulate that opinion, but we don’t need to be experts to be more respectful and tolerant of others, in either social media or in person.  Perhaps that’s the test we use before we send or post something derogatory about a person or a group; ask yourself, would you use those words if the person was in front of you? If so, then ask would you be OK with someone else speaking to, or treating, a person you love or cared about like that? If the answer to one or both is “no,” then perhaps give your words some deeper consideration and try being kind instead of hateful. We have enough hate in the world and treating others with respect and tolerance may even make you feel better about yourself.

Be kind to each other, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it, care enough to ask when you suspect someone needs a helping hand, and let’s let every day be for suicide awareness. You never know the life you may save with one simple, caring action.