A Wingman’s role in suicide prevention


When was the last time someone asked you how you were … and really meant it? When was the last time you not only asked someone how they were, but also waited for an answer?


There is a common belief that suicide rates across the nation are highest during the holidays, said Chaplain (Capt.) Quentin Genke, 436th Airlift Wing chapel. Statistics do not corroborate this statement, however the holidays can leave people feeling alone and isolated, especially if they’re far from their family or friends.


Across the Air Force, Airmen receive annual suicide prevention training. It is a major focus discussed at Comprehensive Airman Fitness events. Commanders talk about it during all calls.


Suicide is something that has impacted nearly everyone, and its effects are even more palpable in the military where suicide rates are higher than in the civilian population.


Each year, for every 100,000 people in the U.S., about 10 to 13 people commit suicide compared to the military’s rate of 18 to 20.


Behaviors and outside influences that make it more likely a person may think about or act on suicidal thoughts are called risk factors. In the military, the three predominate risk factors are relationship distress, administrative problems and legal problems.


Warning signs for suicide tend to be more apparent and easier to recognize than risk factors. A major theme is change. Unusual or sudden changes in behavior, emotions, performance, relationships, appearance, appetite or mood are all examples of warning signs.


“A risk factor is an indicator that someone may be thinking about suicide,” said Michael Vernale, 436th Medical Operations Squadron Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program chief. “That’s all it is. If you see something that seems off about someone else, ask them how they’re doing. Just be honest with them. Most people don’t feel like their story is important enough for other people to listen to. If we just ask them, we take that off the table. It’s far better to be proactive with someone you think might have suicidal tendencies, be in a funk or be depressed than to be reactive after the fact.”


According to the Department of Defense Quarterly Suicide Report Calendar Year 2016 2nd Quarter, “Everyone plays a positive role in suicide prevention.”


This document lists several suggestions for communicating with a friend or loved one believed to be suicidal.


Be direct: Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.

Be willing to listen: Allow expressions of feelings and accept those feelings.

Be non-judgmental: Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture about the value of life.

Get involved: Become available. Show interest and support.

Don’t dare him/her to do it.

Offer hope that alternatives are available, but do not offer general reassurances such as, “it will get better” or “it could be worse.”

Get help from persons or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention, such as Military Crisis Line.


Vernale suggested when having this conversation, it’s important to ask open-ended questions to encourage discussion, to use reflective listening and to know your limitations. A person shouldn’t expect to be able to ‘fix’ the situation or talk someone out of acting, but it gives them a chance to reach out for help.


“As soon as someone starts talking about suicide or wanting to take their life, it starts the healing process,” Genke said. “They’ve been telling people for a long time that they don’t feel their life is worth living, they just haven’t used words. They feel like they’ve been shouting it, but if we’re not aware enough to pick up on their hints, we miss them. It’s important to know your Wingmen so you can hear what they aren’t saying.”


The type of relationship necessary to hear the ‘unspoken words’ is personal in nature, Genke said. If you don’t have that relationship with your coworkers, family or friends, you likely won’t notice risk factors or warning signs.


“I think the human spirit wants to live, we have the survival instinct,” Genke said. “Suicide is abnormal to the human condition, so it takes a really severe circumstance for someone to want to extinguish that spirit. When you’re in the valley, just remember there’s always someone or something willing to walk with you. You don’t have to walk through your valley alone.”


For more information about suicide prevention or a complete list of helping agencies, talk to your unit training manager or visit www.wingmanonline.org.