Saving our airmen: Suicide prevention at Sheppard

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WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) For the first time in the Air Force’s history, an emergency suicide stand down was issued in August in response to the growing epidemic of suicides among airmen across the country.

In an emotional plea, the Air Force’s Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright sent out a PSA saying we lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy, even in combat.

“78 of our brothers and sisters have given up on life this year alone…That’s 28 more than this time last year…” Without direct or targeted efforts, Wright says , “The Air Force could lose 150 to 160 airmen in 2019.”

CMSgt Kaleth Wright

*Editor’s Note: 4 more suicides have been reported in August, but are still unconfirmed with Air Force officials.

At Sheppard, Staff Sergeant Michael Edwards, says he’s all too familiar with the stinging loss of a fellow airmen by suicide, after losing him in 2017.

“It definitely rocked us, it kind of…When you take a key piece out of something and you don’t really know how to keep going without that key aspect of your life anymore…”

SSgt Michael Edwards

In February of this year, suicide prevention training director, Katherine Johnson was also faced with a grim reality when she had a suicide on base during her first week on the job. Now, Johnson and other Sheppard officials are moving steadfast with new, mandatory resiliency training procedures, so that airmen of all ranks know what to do when faced with suicidal situations.

“As we do annual training every year, so do our civilians and our military personnel. We use what is called a bystander intervention approach. We use these 3 steps: direct, delegate and distract. Direct, I’m taking care of it myself, I’m going in asking that hard question to that individual. And then that delegate, I’m going to a supervisor or a friend, I’m getting someone else involved in the situation. Distract when it comes to suicide prevention it’s more of distracting them from those feelings of hopelessness and connecting them with a resource.”

Katherine Johnson

And there are several resources available for airmen and their families on base, from Johnson’s new applied suicide intervention skills training course, to the 82nd medical group. Mental health flight commander, Joel Cartier, says there are many reasons why depression occurs in the military nowadays.

“Specifically here at Sheppard and pretty much across the entire Air Force is we’re putting people in a different position usually away from family, away from friends…Then they’re forced to do things that they’re unfamiliar or sometimes uncomfortable with doing, sometimes that means public speaking, sometimes that means getting out on the flight line and working in some pretty extreme temperatures, and sometimes that means working alongside people maybe the don’t really get along with…”

Joel Cartier, LCSW

In fact, a study found most military suicide attempts can either stem from relationship problems, administrative or legal issues or workplace difficulties. Thankfully, the stigma of seeking help for depression and other disorders in the military is slowly going away through better resources and resiliency training.

“I would say in my earlier years there was a stronger stigma in seeking help through the mental health clinic. I’d say over the past several years that has gradually decreased, and fortunately I’ve seen a lot of commanders here on Sheppard making great strides at decreasing that stigma and eliminating it altogether…”

Joel Cartier, LCSW

Even as an instructor to a generation of fresh-faced airmen, SSgt Edwards says he needed someone to talked to at one point in time, and says he knows what it’s like to feel isolated starting out. Yet, he also knows there are many ways to help one another.

“We spend a lot of time with our airmen as instructors and you get really accustomed to how they act on the day-to-day basis so that slight change, you notice it…Try not to go through anything by yourself whether it be professional help through mental health or just a friend, it’s always easier to handle a situation with the community that you have around you so there’s no reason not to use it.”

SSgt Michael Edwards

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, ptsd or suicidal thoughts, here’s a list of resources at Sheppard and in Texoma:

  • The 82d Medical Group: Sheppard, 149 G W Hart St, Building 1200 First Floor, 940-676-9700
  • SAFB Chaplain Services: Mon-Fri 0730-1630, 940-676-0014 or 676-4370
  • SAFB Airmen Ministries: Solid Rock Cafe, 424 Avenue H Bldg. 450, 940- 676-0014
  • Helen Farabee Centers: 1000 Brook Ave, Wichita Falls, 940-397-3143
  • Rose Street Outpatient Services, 1808 Rose Street, Wichita Falls, 940-723-4488
  • Red River Hospital: 1505 8th St, Wichita Falls, 940 341-2464
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

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