FORT BENNING, Ga. – Now and then someone notices that a fellow-Soldier, co-worker or friend who's usually upbeat and ready for a laugh is lately much quieter than usual, maybe even withdrawn and downcast.
That, and certain other things can be a sign that the person is suicidal, and Fort Benning suicide prevention experts say all should be ready to spot the signs and take three key steps to help save that troubled person's life.
The three steps make up the Army's "ACE" suicide prevention model: Ask, Care, Escort.
"Go beyond your level of comfort, especially if you have that intuitive hunch or that feeling that something's not quite right, and in doing so you position yourself to possibly save a life," said Capt. Charlene Cheney, battalion chaplain with 2nd Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade.
Reminding Fort Benning community members of how to use the ACE steps comes as the U.S. military marks annual Suicide Prevention Month, which is observed during each September.
This year's Suicide Prevention month slogan is "Connect to Protect."
It emphasizes the role all members of the military community – in the Army's case its Soldiers, Department of Army Civilians, Family Members and Retirees – should be ready to play to help prevent suicide.
"When we listen empathetically, without judgment, we create the space for them to start to process their thoughts and feelings, and even possibly come to the realization that while part of them thinks they want to die, there's a part of them that also is not quite sure about this decision. – Capt. Charlene Cheney, battalion chaplain, with 2nd Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade
Although formally associated with the month of September, suicide prevention is a top priority for the U.S. Army and is kept in focus year-round.
And at any time, when it comes to helping someone who may be suicidal, it's important to know some of the common signs, which may vary from one person to another, said Jamisena Tarver, Suicide Prevention Program Manager with the Army Substance Abuse Program overseen here. ASAP is overseen here by U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning's Directorate of Human Resources.
"It's just good to know the signs," said Tarver, "just in case you do run across a person who is at risk or suicidal, that you have the courage to ask, and by knowing the signs, you'll be okay."
The suicidal person may seem dejected or withdrawn; irritable or easily angered. Their eating or sleeping habits may change. They may turn to alcohol or drugs. Some start pulling away from friendships. They may start closing out their personal affairs, giving away belongings, making a will. Still others may talk openly of killing themselves or others.
So helping prevent suicide can start with keeping a caring eye out for all members of the community, experts here said.
"To save a person's life," said Tarver, "is not limited to just Soldiers. It can help your co-workers and your Family members, even a friend."'
"This is taking care of your Army Family and the Army Family includes our DA Civilians, our contractors, our retirees," said Else Seifu, Community Ready and Resilient Integrator with the Surgeon Cell of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence here.
"Because we all have problems," she said. "We all have areas that may require a little support."
Using the ACE steps involves these basic actions:
• Ask: ask the person directly whether he or she is thinking of committing suicide.
• Care: listen calmly and closely and give the person a chance to talk out what's weighing on them.
• Escort: don't leave the person alone. Stay with them and escort them to health care or other trained professionals, including chaplains, or, to their unit leadership, who can take the next steps in getting them help.
And be direct.
"I would encourage people," said Cheney, "to just be direct and ask the question: 'Are you thinking of killing yourself?' 'Are you having thoughts of suicide?' Just simple and direct. Be brave and courageous enough to ask a direct question.
"A lot of people," she said, "will beat around the bush and ask questions like: 'You're not thinking of hurting yourself?' or 'Are you alright?' When you ask questions like that, the individual might say no" to hide suicidal thoughts or decisions.
The next stage, Care, gives the suicidal person an all-important chance to talk.
"If you ask the question 'Are you having thoughts of killing yourself?' and the individual says yes, well then congratulations, because you've positioned yourself to enter into an intervention and save a life," said Cheney.
"And so, when you get to the Care portion of the model, what we want to do is active listening," she said. "We want to open up the sacred space to allow the individual at risk to share what has brought them to this point in their life where suicide seems like the only course of action that will benefit them.
And be comfortable being uncomfortable as you try to help, Cheney said.
"This is a very uncomfortable part of the intervention," said Cheney, "because you're being exposed to a lot of pain from the person at risk, in listening to their story. And I always encourage people to be comfortable being uncomfortable as you listen to what has brought a person to this point in their life."
In the final step, Escort, bring the person to an emergency room, the Behavioral Health office, other health care facilities, a chaplain, or unit leaders like a first sergeant or company commander.
Staying with them until they're in the hands of professionals is also of high importance.
"If you can, physically escort the person who's having thoughts of suicide, and stay by their side the entire time," said Cheney.
The exception might be if the person is drunk, under the influence of drugs, or hostile, she said.
"So to position them for safety, sometimes it's wise just to go ahead and call the ambulance or the MPs to come and get involved in the escort process," said Cheney. "But still you can be supportive and follow the individual to the next level of care, but you want to let the professionals sometimes get involved at that point."
Officials here meanwhile intend to keep up suicide prevention efforts not just throughout September but year-round, and will be moving forward soon with a new effort to broaden the reach and refine the content of suicide prevention training here, said Seifu.
But in all cases, experts said, the core of effective suicide prevention is the willingness of one member of the community to be watchful and ready to help the other, the experts said.
"When we listen empathetically, without judgment," said Cheney, "we create the space for them to start to process their thoughts and feelings, and even possibly come to the realization that while part of them thinks they want to die, there's a part of them that also is not quite sure about this decision.
"And," she said, "if we can help them to hear that there's a part of them that possibly wants to stay alive, we can get them to invest in the next stage, which is escorting them to a resource that's able to provide them a higher level of care."
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Press 1 for the Military Crisis Line.