MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. – The numbers shock and offend the senses – roughly one active duty service member ends their life each day; add in Reserve and National Guard components and the number rises to an average of 1.5 per day. Madigan Army Medical Center’s Department of Behavioral Health hosted a National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month event on September 22, to raise awareness among the Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., community and honor those who have passed.
When 1st Lt. Victoria Bodner first undertook the task to organize an observance for the month alongside her fellow social work intern, 1st Lt. Taylor Ryan, she expected a fairly low-key event. The walk they suggested, having seen the success of similar events, quickly grew to a command level activity that is capturing attention across JBLM.
“We wanted to do the walk, one – to bring awareness, and, two – to have a place to honor the memory of people that we have lost in the past to suicide,” said Bodner. “It's gotten, I feel, more attention than I thought it would. Really shows that people are interested, people care and people are trying to fight the fight of prevention.”
At the event, CH (Capt.) Antoinette Stewart provided an embrace to an open mind and universal participation in her invocation.
Invoking her creator, she appealed, “May we be swept by compassion, for compassion is strength. May our ears be empathetic, may our eyes be attentive and may our voices be heard. And may we be the model of what availability looks like.”
Acknowledging the statistics of both active duty and veterans affected by suicide, Bodner recognized the long-standing stigma within the military surrounding mental health treatment. She noted that, though it does seem to be getting better, the stigma does still keep people from seeking help.
She appreciates this year’s chosen hashtag of “not just September” meaning that the effort to reduce suicide as much as possible is constant.
“Our work is not done,” she said. “It's gonna take an everyday fight and everyday effort after September.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Albert Harris, Madigan’s senior enlisted advisor, added his take on both the hesitation to talk about this subject and what he sees as necessary to tackle it.
“This is a difficult topic to address; but, we must not stay silent. I'm an advocate for leaders to know their soldiers,” he said. “Take care of each other up, down and sideways. I mean, if you're a subordinate, take care of your leaders just as well as we expect our leaders to take care of our subordinates. It has to be a 365, so please go out there, we have to know each other on a daily basis.”
Col. Jonathan Craig Taylor, Madigan’s commander and the director of the Military Health System Puget Sound Market, echoed the plea of his command sergeant major.
“I really think though, as I reflect on the way forward, how critical it is for us to connect and remain connected. And so I appreciate the words that were shared by Chaplain Stewart about how that begins,” he said. “How that begins is that moment where we're just, we take a pause, maybe we're willing to be vulnerable, or we're willing to share a bit of vulnerability, or just to be to be present and to listen. Taking the time to listen and share, I think is really, really valuable.”
Taylor shared something of a personal mantra that he shares each week when he speaks at the newcomer’s orientation – a quote from German poet, playwright, philosopher and all-around Renaissance man of the mid-1700s to early 1800s, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming. – von Goethe
Taylor shared his thoughts on this quote before the chaplain led the crowd in a moment of silence prior to a walk around the pond.
“It's almost like a superpower that you have every day with every encounter. You have this ability to just change the course of someone's day. It really sometimes is the essence of taking care of each other. It's just taking that moment, thinking about how in each interaction, moment to moment, we can make that difference,” Taylor said.
Ryan pointed the attendees, many of whom work in the behavioral health field or have experienced loss due to suicide personally, to the table and staff ready to share resources.
The Defense Suicide Prevention Office has set out to enhance the major key to intervention – connection. With a slogan of “connect to protect”, the office’s www.dspo.mil website offers a wealth of resources to address suicide well beyond September.
These two slogans – connect to protect and not just September – together point to the sort of engagement Bodner recommends for those looking to help a family member, friend or battle buddy who appears to be in need of assistance.
First, how does one know if someone they care about is in need of help?
One of the helpful pieces of information shared at the display the two interns have staffed for a number of lunchtime sessions – the final being Friday, Sept. 30 – is a list of warning signs.
Some signs are more obvious, like talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves. Others, however, like sleeping too little or too much or acting anxious or agitated, can accompany a variety of issues that don’t necessarily indicate suicidal intention.
To help someone in need, Bodner suggested following the A.C.E. guideline – Ask, Care, Escort.
“Do not be afraid to ask the difficult questions, to have that tough conversation with that person,” she said. “Ask – ‘Are your thoughts about killing yourself?’ Care – Provide care to that person and then, Escort – Take them if needed to emergency services. But, it really starts with the first one, which is to ask and to not be afraid.”
Madigan’s Department of Behavioral Health, of which Bodner, Ryan and the 26-month Social Work Internship Program are a part, has designed the JBLM Resource Finder – a reference that quickly connects to resources specific to an individual’s needs.
Having trouble with substances? Anger? Finances? Go to https://madigan.tricare.mil/counseling to find local resources and these other topics. Connect from any web-enabled device. Also, look for the QR code on the graphics included here to be taken to the site.
Additionally, to make accessing help easier, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is now the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline with a new, expedited access number – 988. That’s it, just those three numbers can be used to call or text to be connected with a crisis specialist. After connecting, pressing 1 then directs the caller to someone with military knowledge.
This line also has a website that is packed with information. Visit 988lifeline.org to find the warning signs mentioned above, risk factors and an abundance of resources.
Mental or behavioral health providers are a significant part of the equation for getting people the help they need. They are not alone in the fight against suicide, though.
The available resources range from counselors to chaplains to community groups. Financial planners, dieticians and parenting coaches can all provide the relief a person at risk for suicide might need; they are all to be found on the JBLM Resource Finder and ready to help.
In addition, there is you.
“We need the public's help to identify people who are at risk and get them the help that they need. So, everyone can help with preventing suicide,” said Bodner.
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