ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. — Heart-wrenching stories of people who have lost someone to suicide were the center of two virtual candlelight vigils held jointly by U.S. Army Sustainment Command, First Army, and the Iowa City VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) Healthcare System Nov. 16. The vigil was held in observance of International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day on Nov. 19.
Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is observed yearly on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
ASC Suicide Prevention specialist Dr. Joy Summerlin was joined by ASC Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Kevin Niehoff, and First U.S. Army Chaplain (Maj.) Robert Gibbs, along with First U.S. Army Human Resources specialist Maj. Rebecca Fisher.
Also participating were two suicide prevention specialists from the Iowa City Veterans Affairs office, Robert Otto and Carolyn Marty.
Summerlin said she had “too many” stories to tell, but recounted one of them. “The first time suicide touched my life,” she said, “was the loss of my sister’s fiancé.
“He had lost his mother eight months before to natural causes, and was the youngest of the family,” Summerlin said. She said he had taken the loss very hard and, in fact, had tried to take his own life just two days before, but said his family “just overlooked it.” Then one Sunday, he ended his life with a gun.
For many who told stories of loss, feelings of grief and helplessness were at the center.
Otto said a thought that goes through many survivors’ minds is “was there anything I missed? I think that’s a common thought that everybody has, and blaming yourself, when obviously, you’re not the person to blame.” He said he lost two airmen years ago when he was in the Air Force, and several years ago lost a 17-year-old nephew to suicide.
The suicide statistics in the U.S. are startling. Every 40 seconds, someone takes their life. Summerlin said that means every 41 seconds, someone else is faced with the loss of a friend or family member.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, over 30,000 veterans have died by suicide — four times more than the number of U.S. military personnel who died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The holidays can be especially traumatic, because survivors are bombarded with television, movies, commercials, and community events that celebrate the joy of the holiday season, typically showing families gathering around a busy table eating a meal or sitting around the Christmas tree opening gifts.
But for many, the holiday season is an annual reminder their family is “incomplete” after losing a loved one to suicide years earlier. That’s why most mental health providers emphasize “postvention”, or intervention after a suicide.
Army Regulation AR 600-63, Army Health Promotion, suggests the following postvention actions:
• Be respectful of the feelings of Soldiers, leaders, family, friends, co-workers.
• It is important to quickly address the situation to reduce the likelihood of suicide by contagion.
• Communicate in ways that do not vilify the person who died or focus on the means of death.
• Support reintegration of Soldiers after treatment and encourage the person to continue treatment if needed.
• Follow up in the months after the suicide.
• Bring in chaplains, counselors and grief counselors as valuable resources to assist.
• The local commander/installation commander should have a postvention action plan to execute if there has been a suicide attempt or a death by suicide.
While the vigils were for those who lost someone to suicide, they were also ways to educate participants on what to do if they know of someone who is having suicidal thoughts.
If you see someone struggling with suicidal thoughts, the most important thing to do is to act. Most mental health organizations focus on the ACE method:
• Ask: Ask them directly if they are thinking of killing themselves. Asking does not put the thought in their head.
• Care: Express concern and empathy. Acknowledge and validate how they are feeling. Stay present mentally and, if possible, physically with the person. If on the phone or social media, do not hang up and do not lose the connection.
• Escort: If physically present, take them to an emergency room or behavioral health provider. If not physically present, get their location and have someone else call emergency resources to go to the person while you stay connected with them.
• Make sure you follow up to see how they are doing.
Marty said it is very important to listen when someone says the are thinking of harming themselves. She told a story of being a crisis counselor and receiving a phone call several years ago from someone who was thinking of killing himself. She said she kept him on the phone listening to him and encouraging him to talk and, without him knowing it, sent medical personnel to his house.
She said at first he was angry with her for “outing” him, but later acknowledged that it probably saved his life, and she said that as far as she knew he is still alive today.
International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is observed one day each year, but Summerlin said it’s important to understand that “mental health awareness is about self-awareness 365 days a year.”
There are many resources available if you need help for yourself or others. At ASC, you may contact Chaplain Niehoff at 309-782-0923.
Also, most military and local communities have chaplains, employee assistance programs, behavioral healthcare resources, and others who can offer support.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has resources available for those contemplating suicide, and for those who feel a family member or friend might be thinking of taking their own life. The foundation’s crisis hotline number is 800-273-8255.
You can also call the new national Suicide Help Line at 988.
Army Community Services also has resources for many kinds of situations that military families and individuals face, including suicide loss and prevention. At Rock Island Arsenal, the contact number is 309-782-0829. If you’re not sure of the number to call, the national ACS office can be reached at 800-531-8521, and from there you’ll be directed to the resources closest to you.
For additional information, as well as finding help and supportive resources and peer support, contact Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors at 800-959-TAPS (8277).