MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --
The Air Force is currently battling an enemy right here on the home front; an enemy that has claimed 78 of our Airmen during this year alone.
The Air Force is experiencing an all-time high in suicide rates and Air University is doing their part to ensure this topic does not go unnoticed with their Suicide Awareness Summit, Oct. 29 – 31, 2019, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
Leaders and faculty from Air University opened their doors to Airmen from across Air Education and Training Command to discuss the ideologies of a suicidal mind and how to better help in those situations.
Dr. Mary Bartlett, Air Command and Staff College Associate Professor, has been associated with the Air Force for 20 years and has dedicated the last 15 to researching suicide.
She said that, because of her professional background, she has attended countless suicide awareness events for the Air Force and the DoD, but has yet to encounter one like this.
“This particular summit is different because we were intentional about including topics that aren’t normally discussed during suicide awareness events,” said Bartlett. “… part of our goal was to make sure that [our attendees] have takeaways and tangible skills that they could take back to their units to put into action across AETC and Air University.”
The summit was broken down into three days, with each day dedicated to topics that are not usually discussed in regards to suicide: Education, Vulnerability, Greif, Trauma and Postvention, which is the process of healing within a community after a death by suicide.
Guest speakers included Dr. Thomas Joiner, the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida State University, and a leading suicidologist in the nation, and Dr. Karin Orvis, the Director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.
Joiner attributed many factors of our society to the rise in suicide rates, but one was our nation’s obsession with social media and the lack of real social connections.
“We didn’t have computers back in the ancestral age,” said Joiner. “We had each other. We relied on each other for survival. If you were ostracized, if you got kicked out of the group ancestrally, that meant death…We’re important to each other; we need each other. We developed and evolved under those constraints and I’m not sure social media is the same exact thing.”
Joiner was not the only speaker to attribute the rise in suicide to a lack of connection. Many of the experts agreed that in order to really make an impact, we needed to be willing to form meaningful relationships.
“Caring and connection are key when it comes to reducing suicide,” said Bartlett. “That’s been demonstrated empirically through research…so part of what we’re trying to do across Air University is to help people understand how to build connections not only for mental health providers, but for people in general to help their fellow Airmen.”
To really drive home the lessons learned over the three days, the last guest speaker was someone who spoke from experience.
Retired Col. Robert Swanson, an Air Force veteran and a survivor of two suicide attempts, shared his story.
“About 20 years ago, I was having a lot of issues…and I attempted to take my own life,” said Swanson. “I shouldn’t have survived, I don’t know how I did, but I think maybe the good Lord kept me around for a reason and I think [sharing my story] is the reason.”
Swanson said his story is a simple one with a simple message. One: it can happen to anyone. Two: It always gets better. Three: The tools that are available work.
“We want to remove the stigma and we’re not going to remove the stigma unless we talk about it,” Swanson. “I was a high ranking guy at the time and I got up and said, ‘Hey, I need help,’ and I got it and look what I was able to go on and do. I had another 20 years in my career, so the message that I share today is how I got where I was, my journey back and then my recovery. I was able to stay in [the military] with the love and support of my friends, family and coworkers and have a great career, thus proving that the programs out there work.”