Faces of Suicide
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Capt. Anthony Priest, behavior health officer with 1st Signal Brigade, speaks with Company B, 304th Expeditionary Signal Battalion-Enhanced, July 26, 2022. (Photo provided) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Faces of Suicide
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Capt. Anthony Priest, behavior health officer with 1st Signal Brigade, Sept. 2. (Photo by Monica K. Guthrie) (Photo Credit: Monica K. Guthrie) VIEW ORIGINAL

CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea - The morning Capt. Anthony Priest stepped through the front door of my office, his dilated pupils and somber look on his face foreshadowed an emotional interview. As he sat at the table we began to talk about Light Up the Night, an event hosted by his behavioral health team at 1st Signal Brigade. He started to share information on its origin. Never would I have guessed the origin story came from a very personal place.

Priest, the second oldest of five sisters, was raised by a single mother. Being the only son, he felt the weight of responsibility from an early age.

“People just felt like they could trust me and felt comfortable with me,“ said Priest. “They could talk to me about their challenges. I got accustomed to it and started to enjoy being the voice of reason and support.”

During his sophomore year of high school, Priest noticed he had the ability to tell when someone was hurting, broken, or needed someone to be a listening ear. One day he befriended a young girl who said she needed a space to belong in.

For months Priest would talk to his classmate several hours after school, to the point that his family thought the relationship was romantic. However, he knew she was a friend and he was her listening ear. She eventually broke down and admitted she had been suicidal for the past year and did not tell anybody.

“It was a scary thing, as a 15-year-old, to know that somebody’s life was in my hands, but you know I just did what I thought was best and brought the humanity into it,” said Priest. “I did what I thought was best for her, so that was my first introduction to suicidality and suicide thoughts. I was sure to make it my mission to make sure she knew somebody cared.”

Suicidality is defined as an individual’s mindset when they are unhappy or depressed. Some people struggle with the thought of suicide, but it may be a fleeting thought.

Fortunately for Priest his sincere empathy for his friend led her to live a life where she is happy and now has a beautiful family. However, sometimes there are no warning signs and the last one suspected completes the act.

“I lost a friend to suicide my senior year of high school,” said Priest. “When we lost him, it was a shock to a lot of people. He was positive, he was bubbly and it was very clear to me then that suicidality doesn’t have a face. Suicidality doesn’t have a structure to it.”

Gathered at the high school’s flagpole, Priest and hundreds of other students lit candles in remembrance of his friend’s life. At the time, Priest was asked to pray for the group. He noted that it was intimidating for him, but he said in that moment he was able to create some peace for the crowd.

“Everybody was crying, but I felt […] in this space, in this time, these people around me needed someone to tell them that we are going to get through this, and we are going to be OK,” he said.

The death of his friend catapulted his desire to learn more about the faces of suicide and how he could fill the void when someone had no one in their life. Priest didn’t expect the next time he would have to counsel someone it would be his own mother.

“My junior year of college my mother called me while I was at work. She had a handful of pills and she was ready to take them.” Priest said, pausing before continuing.

“I was pretty scared, six hours apart from each other, from a driving standpoint. So, if I couldn’t have convinced her on the phone then there was just nothing physically, I could do in that moment. Had she not called me, or I had not been able to answer, I don’t know if my mom would still be here,” said Priest. “But because of the timing and because of our connection, I convinced her not to do it and so she’s still alive and well.”

Priest said the crisis with his mother hit him the hardest and he is incredibly grateful he was able to guide his mom through her trial. Around this time Priest decided to use his talent to help a larger, more diverse group of people and serve his country at the same time. He went from a trusted family-and-friend counselor to Army behavioral health specialist. Then tragedy hit.

“One of the patients I saw ended up losing her life to suicide as well,” said Priest. “That was tough. She said she wasn’t suicidal. That made me realize it is really important – the culture you create when you are talking to somebody because there is a possibility it goes another way.”

Now every interaction with his patients is critical and valuable because it is hard to gage how long it takes for the thought of suicide to drive someone to produce results.

“Had there been anything that I could have done better or differently I would have done it to hopefully have kept her alive, but unfortunately I couldn’t,” said Priest.

Priest continued to pursue his education as a licensed clinical social worker. He interned at Fort Campbell, Ky., working beside others who mirrored his desire to help people see the light in their darkest hours. He and his colleagues were dedicated to their profession and could pick up on the warning signs – or so they thought.

“We were all blindsided.”

The story continues next week. Come back for part two of our three-part series.