Most often, and particularly during September’s national observance as Suicide Prevention Month, numbers are used to convince Americans that suicide is a major public health concern.
It’s a sad story to tell with more than 47,500 people dying by suicide each year in the U.S. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death overall in the U.S., and the second leading cause of death among young Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But, for Skip Johnson, the Army Materiel Command’s suicide prevention officer, the bigger story behind combatting suicide involves more than numbers. When Johnson shares his story about the importance of suicide prevention with AMC employees, it includes fighting stress, depression and anxiety with terms like: building connections, encouraging a sense of belonging, communicating and listening, knowing people’s motivations, developing coping skills and changing the narrative.
Johnson’s story fits in well with the 2021 themes used for National Suicide Prevention Month by the Department of Defense – “Connect to Protect – Support Is Within Reach” – and by the Army – “It’s the Everyday, Little Things That Matter.”
“Connectedness among community organizations and social institutions is vital in combating the rising rate of suicide,” he said. “But the goal is not only to increase the number of social ties or connections among persons or groups. It’s also about building relationships among individuals, families, co-workers and friend groups. It’s about giving people hope.”
The Army’s suicide rate first surpassed the national average in 2008, when the Army suicide rate was 20.2 per 100,000 Soldiers compared with an overall U.S. civilian rate of 19.2 per 100,000 people, he said. A 2020 DOD report shows the total Army (all three components) had 258 suicides in 2019 and 317 in 2020. Up to 70% of people who commit suicide tell someone first, studies show.
“The fact is that anyone can get depression. But it is a treatable condition and there is always hope,” Johnson said.
“Recognizing the need for treatment can bring new meaning to someone struggling with difficult circumstances. If you or someone you know is struggling with emotional distress, you are not alone. Feeling sad, blue or hopeless? Lost interest in things you used to enjoy? Do you suffer from body aches and pains with no known physical cause? If you know anyone who might be experiencing signs of depression or have concerns about their well-being, help them get the help they need.”
Life often brings hardships, but supportive connections defined by trust and respect provide hope to help overcome those hardships, and lead to increases in positive health and well-being, resulting in a lower risk of suicidal behavior, he said.
“Recent reports from the Veterans Administration show an increase in the number of requests for help from veterans who are having suicidal thoughts,” Johnson said. “The withdrawal from Afghanistan has left many veterans with a more complicated ending than some anticipated – and possibly more serious long-term mental health consequences.
“As we move forward our message to veterans should be, ‘Be proud of what you did, because you have kept Afghanistan safe over the last 20 years. You have kept Americans safe.’ We should express to them that what they did is of value and, if they are having problems, we need to show them the resources that are available to get them through this difficult time.”
Current events in Afghanistan are not the only issue causing anxiety and depression among Americans, Johnson said. Concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, workforce isolation due to the need for teleworking and social distancing due to the pandemic, and anxiety associated with disinformation have all contributed to the nation’s overall mental health. In addition, major weather catastrophes, economic worries and home-life issues can lead to mental health problems and a higher suicide risk.
“Social connectedness and caring connections are critical,” Johnson said. “But COVID has caused us to limit in-person contact with others, leading to feelings of isolation and abandonment. Even during COVID-19, there are many ways to look out for each other, build cohesion and stay connected. Social connectedness and a sense of belonging improve physical, mental and emotional well-being. Now more than ever, it is vital to stay socially connected while physically distancing.”
AMC is following the DOD’s and Army’s lead in encouraging positive mental health by focusing on employees holistically, by arming them with the positive, protective factors of overall physical fitness, mental strengthening, social skills, spiritual strength and resilience. AMC’s Suicide Prevention Program is based around year-round activities and training that encourages positive affirmations, self-care and self-awareness, connectedness and work-life balance.
“We are teamed up with Commander’s Ready and Resilient Council and local agencies to provide employees with training opportunities that promote connectedness, develop coping and problem-solving skills, encourage quality of life activities and provide resources to improve employee health,” Johnson said.
Sustaining a strong and resilient AMC workforce, he said, is achieved by building a positive, caring and optimistic command climate. That resiliency spills over into employees’ personal life, improving their overall well-being and the well-being of those around them.
“The goal is not simply to increase the number of social ties or connections among persons or groups, but to enhance availability of and access to supportive resources,” Johnson said. “Increasing connectedness among personnel, families and communities – including service, funding and advocacy communities – is likely to have a universal as well as a targeted effect on decreasing the risk of suicidal behavior.”
Key indicators vary as to who might be at a high risk for suicide, Johnson said, making it difficult for even trained mental health professionals to prevent. That’s why building relations – at home, at work and within everyday activities – is so crucial.
“During these uncertain times, everyone maybe affected, and there are so many risk factors that can impact individuals to different degrees,” Johnson said.
“At work, the question for every supervisor and every employee is: How well do you know the people you work with? The key is to create an environment where people feel a sense of belonging by communicating in ways that make them feel valued and their contributions meaningful. The end state is to remove social barriers to seeking help so persons contemplating or planning suicide are less likely to engage in life-threatening behaviors.”
Other strategies to maintain positive mental health include simplifying and organizing everyday life, limiting alcohol and drug consumption, focusing on others through volunteering, joining a support group, maintaining regular exercise and eating a healthy diet.
Those experiencing an emotional crisis or who are experiencing suicidal thoughts can connect 24/7 with free, confidential services at the Veteran Crisis Line, 1-0800-273-8255, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-263-8255.The DOD Office of Health Affairs offers anonymous mental health self-assessments which can be taken at www.MilitaryMentalHealth.org and Military OneSource, 1-800-342-9647, provides support to all service members and their families. AMC’s Suicide Prevention Program can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: As part of Redstone’s recognition of September as National Suicide Prevention Month, Redstone’s Employee Assistance Program is offering a weekly virtual session related to suicide prevention. Upcoming sessions include: Intentional Spirituality, Sept. 22, noon to 1 p.m., Presentation by Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Charles Lahmon, Garrison chaplain, link: https://connect.apan.org/enhancingconnections; and Suicide and Trauma: Understanding the Impact on Emotional Health, Sept. 28, noon to 1 p.m., presented by Shannon Laframboise, clinical director, Crisis Services of North Alabama, link: https://connect.apan.org/enhancingconnections.