PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
Editor’s Note: Last names have been omitted for operational security.
The National Institute of Mental Health describes feelings of despair, researching ways to die and social withdrawal as signs that someone is considering suicide. Additional signs listed on their website include extreme mood swings, excessive drug use and feelings of being burdensome to others.
The 920th Rescue Wing Chaplain, Maj. Kevin, said these red flags are important but not always apparent. He believes, there are better ways to approach suicide prevention.
Chaplains, like Kevin, provide mental and spiritual support to military members and their families. They study the overlap between mental, emotional, social and spiritual health, allowing them to provide what is referred to as pastoral counseling.
Early on in his career, he noticed a common theme when providing grief counseling in response to suicides: The families never saw it coming.
“It’s really critical to have a baseline for how somebody behaves so that you can observe changes,” said Kevin. “But frankly, many of the situations I have worked with over the years did not have what we consider telltale signs.”
The lack of red flags molded his belief that society is too focused on reactionary approaches to suicide prevention. For him, waiting on a warning sign would be like seeing a doctor for an injury or dealing with a preventable disease after contracting it. He is adamant that shifting towards a holistic, proactive strategy, focused on physical wellness, coping skills and multilayered support systems, could save lives.
“Physical fitness does seem to influence our emotional well-being,” said Maj. Randy, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine and 920th RQW Flight Surgeon. “Increased physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, which has been shown to improve mood by having an effect on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and, therefore, on the physiologic reaction to stress.”
The 920th RQW flight surgeon explained that the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis includes parts of the brain specifically associated with motivation, mood and memory formation. He made it clear that proper diet and sleep are just as important as physical fitness and that balancing the trio is a must.
“Diet and sleep play major roles in emotional well-being,” he said. “For example, some positive changes of lowering carbohydrates include increased energy, mental alertness, potential weight loss, and better quality of sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep has been shown to increase mental alertness, motivation, desire for physical activity and helps with weight loss.”
Kevin believes coping skills are another piece of the suicide prevention puzzle. He listed breathing techniques, journaling and meditation as some common examples. He suggests people of faith lean into and focus on their spirituality. The Reserve Chaplain also recommends volunteering as a means of strengthening coping skills.
“Whether it’s to individuals, groups, or a specific cause,” said Kevin. “Giving often provokes us to be reflective and grateful. Giving can also strengthen our sense of purpose and clarify life’s priorities.”
The final portion of Kevin’s perspective on suicide prevention is relationship-centered. He explained how people are less inclined to commit suicide if they have at least one person they feel they can go to in their darkest hour.
“Develop a constellation of relationships that are supportive,” the Chaplain said. “You need to be able to off-gas the stresses and craziness pertaining to the different parts of your life. Some people you are comfortable talking about work with, while other may not understand your work, but they understand who you are.”
He added that it is everyone’s responsibility to develop an organizational culture where people feel connected and supported.
The Chaplain hopes society will begin to prioritize physical wellness, coping skills and multilayered support systems in the fight to prevent suicides.
For additional information, contact Military One Source at 800-342-9647, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or your Chaplain's office.