DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. --
Struggling with depression doesn’t make you any less of an Airman. This simple statement, repeated many times during my counseling sessions, is often the catalyst to helping Airmen open up and begin their healing process. And make no mistake about it – Depression is a “silent disease.” “Silent,” because the social stigma attached to people struggling with depression too often forces people into silence.
And that silence is deadly.
According to the World Health Organization, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people, with the most common underlying disorder being depression. But anyone can get depressed, and depression can happen at any age and in any type of person. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that depression affects 16 million Americans every year. This includes men and women in the military, who often feel unspoken pressures to be ironclad gladiators with impenetrable machismo.
But they are as vulnerable to the disease of depression as anybody else.
As my friend, Attempt Survivor Efrem Epstein, told me, “Emotional safety should be every bit as important as physical safety. In fact, emotional safety IS physical safety.”
On Dec. 12, 2019, the FCC approved using 988 – as opposed to the clunky 1-800-273-TALK – as a national suicide prevention hotline number, to more quickly serve Americans in crisis. In the future, calls to this number will be directed to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which also offers an online chat service.
Yet, the cultural taboo still makes it hard for people to pick up the phone and make the call or talk to someone about what they’re going through. This is especially true in work cultures focused on peak performance. I think of my friend, Joe Barksdale, who is an NFL offensive tackle for the Los Angeles Chargers. He recently shared his past and current battles with depression in a Los Angeles Times article. Barksdale did this because he recognized that just getting players to talk was one of the biggest challenges faced by NFL mental health advocates. As Joe puts it, “If I can speak my truth, maybe I can save another person going through this.”
As Airmen, we’re trained to use the ACE method – Ask, Care and Escort. When we engage with someone in distress, particularly someone struggling with suicidal thoughts, we support them with the following:
Ask direct questions about their troubling thoughts and means of harming themselves.
Care for them by calmly expressing concern and limiting access to harm.
Escort them immediately to a helping resource.
One of the most powerful ways to support a fellow Airman struggling with this disease is to simply listen and help them feel that their internal battle doesn’t make them any less of an Airman. The disease of depression is like a dark cloud that comes upon them, making them think thoughts and feel feelings that are truly dark. But – underneath the darkness – lies their light, which has been there all along.
You have the light within you to fly, fight and win. The true you is full of light, faith, joy and resilience. Sometimes, the tool to uncover your real you is medication; sometimes, it’s counseling; and sometimes, it’s just being reminded that struggling with depression doesn't diminish who you are. So, reach in – and never be ashamed or afraid to reach out.
As my spiritual mentor, the Baal Shem Tov, taught me, “Fear builds walls to bar the light.”
For suicide prevention for yourself or a loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The call is free and confidential.