Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Scott Koeman knows that the issue of suicide can be difficult to discuss and more difficult to combat. Prevention ties into the Army’s top priority of taking care of people and, since the onset of COVID-19 earlier this year and ensuing quarantines and isolation, the number of suicides nationally has risen dramatically.
Koeman, a chaplain with 34 years’ experience, knows the issue too well. He’s conducted classroom training discussing suicide prevention and counseled dozens of individuals with suicidal ideations – thoughts and feelings of taking one’s own life – in his career. He has also counseled family, friends and coworkers of those affected by the usually sudden loss of a loved one or colleague.
The chaplain breaks down the issue of suicide prevention into areas of awareness – awareness of the need for healthy habits and healthy relationships and reaching out to lifelines when necessary.
“It's hard to overemphasize the need for self-awareness,” he stated. “When it comes to your overall mental, emotional, relational, spiritual, physical, health. We're very complex beings, so it's never just one facet of our lives that starts to breakdown, or be put on pause, that causes any of us to start to have self-doubt and thoughts of hurting ourselves or suicide.”
Many factors are usually involved, Koeman said, leading to a downward spiraling in an individual’s overall well-being. A decrease in physical activity, feelings of isolation, or generally not feeling up to par, can be compounded when an event occurs that amplifies the feelings already present. The event could be large or small, relatively speaking. Maybe it’s a sudden disruption to a routine, maybe it’s an illness or the death of a friend or loved one or a divorce or separation.
“We've already found ourselves in a situation where we're not emotionally healthy, physically healthy, and relationally healthy,” Koeman stated, adding that a stressful event can cause someone to question whether or not live is worth living.
“Preemptively, we must learn to really work at our own health, our own well-being in all of its various facets — spiritually, mentally, emotionally.
“It's really important to have a good network of friends who can encourage you emotionally and spur you on and to have healthy relationships.”
Relationships lacking reciprocity, where one party takes far more than they give, would be an example of unhealthy relationships, Koeman said, adding that such relationships need to be avoided, especially for someone who’s not in a healthy state themselves.
“Self-awareness is critical. Good, healthy habits are a part of that, which sounds so simple, so small, but (healthy habits) have significant consequences,” he added.
Adhering to a regular schedule, including a regular sleep schedule, can go a long way toward staying healthy.
“There are a number of studies that have been done regarding sleep,” Koeman said. “You will know when you’re in a healthy place with your rest. When your mind can rest at night, during your sleep cycle, you find yourself where, even on a weekend, you're getting out of bed about the same time, without your alarm as you work during the week. All the hormones and chemicals in your body work together, or they can work against you.”
Although our bodies need restful sleep to restore balance, Koeman acknowledges that some people need medical assistance when it comes to body chemistry.
“Anecdotal ideas of good physical, mental, spiritual, relational emotional health don't negate the need for some people to really have a close working relationship with their doctor. Those who have to take meds also to have that same consistency in their diet and sleep and relational connection.”
From the self-awareness perspective, suicidal ideations require action on the part of the individual.
“If someone has gotten that far, they have to slow down the video, and maybe even hit the ‘pause’ button,” Koeman said.
“Name three to five people who, who would be absolutely devastated -- parents, siblings, spouse and close friends -- those most important to you in your life and who know you so well. Those are your lifelines.
"Those are the people that you have to reach out to and say, ‘hey, mom, hey, dad. hey, honey, I just need you to know I’ve been in a dark place in my life, and I don't know how to say this without just saying it bluntly, but I’ve even had thoughts of killing myself. I don't know why or where all this comes from. But it's real. I just want you to know that. I need you in my life and I don't really want to kill myself, but I'd have these thoughts.”
They might be shocked, he said, but “they're not going to think less of you; they're going to know, they're going to be aware and they can link in with you more often with a ‘Hey, how are you doing? Have you had any more thoughts of taking your life? Have you had any more thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself?’
“At that point, the lifeline is everything. You’ve got to have those lifelines and notify them. That's probably the hardest thing anybody can probably do, but it’s the most critical.”
“Anywhere along the way, at any point, you can always reach out to psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, or chaplains,” Koeman added.
Army chaplains, he noted, legally have no restrictions on their confidentiality.
“When you call a chaplain, it is one-hundred percent confidential. People have had inhibitions because they’re worried about their careers and reputations, but unless the person who contacts the chaplain release the chaplain from that obligation, they’re forbidden to discuss anything,” he said, noting that the restriction is complete and a commanding general or a civilian supervisor has no authority to exact information.
“What we do, as a professional, is to offer you help. We can’t reach through the phone and remove the gun from their hand or take away the bottle of pills,” Koeman said. “What we're going to end up doing, in the long run, is providing that lifeline. At the end of the day, if someone calls me and says, ‘I'm thinking about taking my life’, I'm going to help you see the value of life.
“Before I'm done, I'm going to link you back to the most significant people in your own life. And I'm going to ask you questions like, ‘who do you most care about?’ Who do you think most cares about you?’
“It might be difficult. Your list might be short. And if you've been in a dark place for a long time, and you burned a lot of bridges with a lot of people, then the list can get rather short. But, there's always somebody and there’s always hope!”
Chaplain Koeman said he’s available to talk to anyone within the TACOM community – Soldier, civilian or contractor. He can be contacted at (586) 219-0759.