Three steps to avert suicide: Step up, stay calm, stay with them

By Franklin FisherSeptember 29, 2015

Three steps to avert suicide: Step up, stay calm, stay with them
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The ACE Card
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CAMP RED CLOUD -- In a U.S. Army suicide prevention video, a Soldier tells on camera how while he was serving in Iraq, his wife asked for a divorce. The news left him devastated, and as the days passed, some of his fellow-Soldiers who knew him well noticed that their once-upbeat buddy was downcast and withdrawn.

At one point he told a close buddy just how distraught he was becoming, especially during long stretches in a guard tower.

Sometime later, he decided to kill himself.

He took his rifle from the wall, put the muzzle to his chin, and squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened.

He began taking the weapon apart to fix it and saw the firing pin was missing.

A short time later, he explains in the video, the close buddy walked in and the suicidal Soldier asked whether he'd taken his firing pin.

"He says, 'Yes, I took your firing pin. I took it last night.' He says, 'You were worrying me.' He said I was showing so many signs, and I didn't realize I was giving any off. I was just communicating with a buddy, you know, just, my problems."

That quiet intervention by a concerned buddy points up what the Army says is crucial in helping curb Soldier suicide: peer-to-peer intervention -- Soldiers keeping a caring eye on their fellow-Soldiers -- and knowing three basic steps to take if they know or think their buddy intends suicide.

The three steps are summed up in the word "ACE," for "Ask," "Care," and "Escort." They apply to helping any person within the military community, including civilians or family members.

The Army's ACE formula sets out three actions to take: Ask: directly but calmly ask the person whether he's thinking of suicide; Care: listen closely and give him a chance to talk about what's bothering him; and Escort: rather than leaving him alone, escort him to a health facility, a chaplain, to his unit leadership or some other place where trained professionals can take it from there.

Soldiers like the one who took the firing pin from his buddy's weapon amount to "first-responders" in the fight to curb military suicide, said Chaplain David Mvondo, Area I Chaplain with the U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud and Area I.

"Because Soldiers know each other very well, they can recognize the warning signs, Mvondo said. They know what their battle buddies are going through. They eat together, they talk together, they spend time in the barracks, they spend time at work. So they are very close to their peers."

As of September 18, the Army reported a total of 203 Soldier suicides for this year, a figure that includes Active Army, National Guard and Reserve Soldiers. That's up from the 169 in 2014 and down from the 225 of 2013.

Warning signs vary from one suicidal person to another. They may withdraw from friends and others, give away their belongings, start wrapping up their personal affairs, and sometimes may talk openly of suicide or of killing someone else.

Once the need arises to help a suicidal person, quick but calm action and "active listening" are called for, Mvondo said.

It's a time to shut out everything else and listen, paying full attention to the person and avoiding anything that could make the person think you don't really have your heart in helping him.

Being straightforward, no walking on eggshells around the subject, is key, said Wayne Johnson, USAG Red Cloud and Area I's manager of the Area I Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP).

"It's really important that you do ask the hard question, and the hard question is, 'Are you going to kill yourself?'" said Johnson. "Very difficult question to pose but you must do that for the benefit of the individual."

"Stop everything else you're doing," said Mvondo. "You can't be listening to somebody who is dealing with suicide ideations and check your Facebook at the same time. Send messages and receive messages. You can't do that."

"It's very easy," said Johnson, "to want to help that person by telling your story, especially if you had thoughts [of suicide] yourself at one time.

"But remember, at this point, again, it's not about you," he said. "It's about the individual who is in crisis, and really seriously in crisis. And you have to listen. You have to hear what they're saying."

Another key action in talking with the person is to try -- calmly and without using force -- to take any weapon, drugs or other things they might use to hurt themselves.

"I would ask them," said Mvondo, "'Hey, I know you have a weapon and do you mind if I keep that?' And most of the time, once you've done a good job communicating and getting them to trust you, they will give it to you."

Sometimes in dealing with a suicidal Soldier who had a weapon, Mvondo would quietly mention the weapon and say, "'Look at that, that's a threat to you. You want to stay alive and I want you to stay alive. So let's get rid of anything that would prevent us from keeping you alive.' So you don't need force once the person is able to trust you."

"You can," said Johnson, "ask the person, 'Do you have anything here that you are going to use?' And be sure to take that and move it out of sight and away from the individual."

The final step is to escort the person to professional help, a chaplain, medical facility, unit leadership.

"We tell our soldiers it's important, after you have "asked," "cared," you need to "escort" that Soldier to somebody who has a little more training to deal with suicide. Because suicide is very complicated, so they need professional help."

The USAG Red Cloud and Area I maintains a 24-hour Suicide Prevention Hotline. Help is available by calling: 010-3762-0457.

In the Army suicide intervention video, the Soldier who was saved from suicide was grateful that his buddy had stepped in and removed the firing pin.

"I mean, he took charge of the situation," said the Soldier. "He manned up and he did what he had to do."

"Your immediate peer," he said, "the man to the left and the right that you talk to every day, that you may even go and hang out at his house or hang out at his barracks room after work, those are the guys that really need to watch. Those are the guys that are going to make a difference."

As for the Soldier who stepped in to help, he saw himself as an ordinary person who saw a need to help, and did.

"It's surreal, you know?" he says in the video. "It didn't seem like these things happen to me. I'm not that guy that intervenes. I'm not that guy that does stuff like this. But for some reason, I was. For some reason, I did. I didn't believe it myself, but, I'm glad I did it."


Below are links to two compelling Army suicide prevention videos, one of which is referred to in the above article:

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