Mentally Fit to Fight

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Alessandra N. Hurley
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
"I don't care what happens to me. I just want to stop feeling this way."

Lee Sasse, 28th Medical Group's family advocacy outreach manager, said those thoughts are just two examples of thoughts those battling severe clinical depression feel. He said it is critical Airmen be good wingmen to each other and help each other get the medical care they need.

Mr. Sasse gives credit for the success of suicide prevention in 2010 to wingman culture and a saturation of suicide prevention advertising and training.

"We have seen a spike in wingman saves by concerned friends and supervisors who took responsibility for each other and refused to look the other way when they noticed an Airman wasn't doing well emotionally," he said, adding that 2010 was the first year since 2005 where there were no completed suicides at Ellsworth.

"Our number of hospitalizations for suicide risk was almost doubled in 2010 with a total of 49 patients hospitalized as compared to 26 total hospitalizations in 2009. But, this is a very good thing," he said. "This proves that our system is working, that people are coming forward and that some of the stigma of seeking help has been removed. Others are taking warning signs of suicide seriously and are actively getting involved in helping people get the help they need. This gives us all hope."

Mr. Sasse encourages everyone to embrace the wingman culture by remaining alert to this kind of hopeless thinking and to get each other help.

"Some causes for emotional pain experienced by some Airmen are relationship problems from divorce, break-up or loss of custody of their children, financial hardships and investigations," he added. "The common theme among all of these is a loss of hope and a feeling that there is nothing to live for and no one who can understand what they're going through. An Airman may obsessively think the worst possible scenario will happen to them. They may convince themselves they will never see their children, again, that they will end up bankrupt, that their career will be over or that they will end up in jail."

Mr. Sasse explained that death is not what people ultimately want for themselves.

"When someone is feeling suicidal, they don't necessarily want to die," Mr. Sasse said. "They just want the hurt they're feeling to stop. They may feel there's no other way out from the problems they are facing other than to take themselves out of the equation. The danger of this thinking is an absence of hope and a low motivation to take control by seeking help."

Mr. Sasse reported that most of those from Ellsworth who were admitted into the mental hospital in Rapid City were supported by concerned peers or supervisors.

"We're all sensors for distress," he said. "It's vitally important that we all watch our friends and those we work with for signs of depression. Depression doesn't recognize age or rank. In the mental health profession, we have seen suicides committed by senior enlisted and officers. This is not an issue that only affects those with pay grades from E-1 to E-4 or only those aged 18 to 24, although they are a high risk group."

In 2008, the suicide of a brigadier general stationed in Alaska made the news when it was published in the Air Force Times.

"The most important signs to look for are sudden changes in behavior," Mr. Sasse said. "If someone you know suddenly starts acting like a completely different person, has trouble concentrating at work, seems fatigued, begins isolating themselves from friends, is drinking more alcohol or actually starts talking about ending their life, take them seriously."

The Air Force uses the ACE (Ask, Care and Escort) model to help Airmen in crisis.

"The first step in getting someone help is to ask them directly if they are thinking about killing themselves," Mr. Sasse said. "In most cases, if a person is thinking of suicide, they will give a direct answer and say 'yes.' The second step is to care by listening and the last step is to escort the person to get help."

There are a number of resources available to those who need help in feeling better. The mental health clinic, chapel and military family life consultants are just a few examples.

"The best source of support is often family members, friends or anyone you feel comfortable speaking with and the biggest protective factor against suicide is surrounding yourself with people who care about you," Mr. Sasse said. "The great thing about the numerous briefings given to military members is that nine out of 10 of them contain education about suicide awareness. Airmen who are aware of the signs of severe depression are better prepared to keep each other safe and to make sure their wingmen are okay."

Air Combat Command lists four pillars that comprise the core of an Airman's fitness; being healthy physically, socially, mentally and spiritually.

As a result of the importance placed on mental health as one of the four components of an Airman's comprehensive fitness, Mental Health assists Airmen with resilience training prior to a deployment as well as during reintegration on the way back from a deployment.

"Life in the military produces a specific stress," Mr. Sasse said. "How a person manages that stress can be difficult if they are new to the military and have never experienced it before."

Because life in the military produces specific stress many have not previously dealt with, Mental Health considers it a priority to inform Airmen, as soon as possible, about the help available to them, whenever they need it.

"Talking about suicide prevention at the First Term Airman Center is very important," said Senior Airman Catherine Bowden, 28th Medical Operations Squadron mental health technician. "The general age of individuals attending FTAC ranges from 18 to 25, which is a high risk age for suicide. Also, new Airmen have just completed basic training, their tech school and are now trying to adjust to a new duty station. The stress of this adjustment, combined with social isolation, can create dangerous circumstances. It is also important to inform new Airmen of their options for getting help, and providing them with the means to do so, so they can feel confident in their ability to get help."

Mr. Sasse explained that many Airmen hesitate to come in for help because they are concerned it will damage their military career.

"Our job is not to send people out of the military. If they're not feeling well, they're not going to be able to work to the best of their ability. Our job is to get them better, and keep them working so they can do their job," Mr. Sasse said. "Maintaining good mental health is not only critical to working well at their profession, how they feel has the biggest impact on how they're doing in all aspects of their life. If they're not feeling well, they're not going to have a pleasant time."