National Suicide Prevention Day

Tomorrow will be September 11. It has become, since the bombings of 2001, a day of offering support and recognition to first responders such as firemen, policemen and those who are serving in our armed forces. Such tributes are appropriate. Those who respond to the call to service deserve our support every day of the year and special events to honor them and to recognize their service help us to honor them and the work that they do.

Truly honoring service people, however, must occur more than once a year. An anniversary of a tragedy is not the only time to show our support of those who serve.

It may well be that today is as important a day as 9-11 when it comes to supporting military personnel, firefighters, police and other first responders. Today is national suicide prevention day. It is one day in the midst of an entire month devoted to education, awareness and activities to prevent suicide. And suicide is a great danger for those who serve.

In a video recently posted online by the US Air Force, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said, “We lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy - even more than combat.” And it isn’t just the Air Force. Suicide kills more people in all branches of the US military than combat. More cops die by suicide than line of duty deaths. More Firefighters die by suicide than by line of duty deaths.

Getting serious about preventing suicide is essential if we are to truly support those who serve.

From time to time I am asked to address the families of newly-sworn officers of our local Sheriff’s department. One of the things I try to address are some general facts about stress management and ways that family members can be supportive of their new officers. Because law enforcement takes place 24 hours a day, officers will be doing shift work which can be a source of stress and family disruption. This is also true of military personnel and firefighters. There are some things that can be done to assist those who are engaged in working nights and trying to sleep during the day. Another thing I do when I speak with those families is to offer a bit of reassurance. Law enforcement work involves risk, to be sure, but it isn’t the most dangerous profession around. Loggers, fishers, pilots, roofers, garbage collectors, steel workers, truck drivers, farmers and ranchers, construction workers and grounds maintenance workers all have occupations where risk of death is higher than police and sheriff’s patrol officers. There are at least 30 professional categories with higher line of duty deaths than fire fighters.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to be vigilant when it comes to protecting those who serve. We just need to be realistic about where the danger lies. Our officers carry a range of tools on their belts, including pepper spray, tasers, and guns that help them to do their job and protect them from harm. They wear body armor to provide additional protection. We are far less likely to provide them with the psychological tools they need to deal with threats to their well being. Their jobs involve exposure to trauma, horrific accidents and shootings. They will, in the course of their careers respond to deaths by suicide. A report commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation showed that there is a relationship between the number of deaths witnessed and the likelihood of an officer dying by suicide.

There is a huge stigma associated with seeking mental health assistance in our country ant that stigma is even greater among first responders. Those who suffer from depression or other mental illness experience shame and a fear of losing their jobs if they seek treatment. The stigma associated with mental illness prevents law enforcement officers, firefighters and military personnel from seeking treatment.

Less than 10 percent of all U.S. law enforcement agencies have suicide prevention programs. The military is a bit better. All branches have some sort of suicide prevention program. the U.S. Air Force is stepping up prevention programs in response to an alarming increase in deaths by suicide in the first half of 2019. An increase of more than 50% in deaths by suicide occurred in the first half of 2019. If that trend continues 2019 could be a disastrous year for the Air Force when it comes to suicide. It already is a tragic year for the families involved.

Representative Susan Wild from Pennsylvania has become an articulate spokesperson for increasing suicide prevention efforts on the national stage after her partner died by suicide over Memorial Day weekend. Instead of being silent in here grief, she has added mental health and suicide prevention to her policy agenda and has spoken passionately and beautifully before the House of Representatives. At least two people have written to her saying that seeing the video of her speech saved their lives. Contemplating suicide, the individuals chose instead to seek help after hearing her words.

Each of us has a role to play in suicide prevention. It can start with a simple question: “Are you OK?” When we notice a friend who seems a bit depressed, we can ask, “Are You OK?” When we see someone struggling with problems, we can ask, “Are You OK?” When we comfort one who is grieving, we can ask, “Are You OK?” It is a simple question that conveys concern and support at the same time. Of course asking the question demands that we spend the time to truly listen to the answer. There will be times when we need to help the person find additional resources. Counseling and mental health care are difficult to obtain in some parts of our communities. It can take a bit of resourcefulness and persistence to find support services. But it is essential that we reach out and provide the support needed.

Those who are most affected by suicide loss often consider their grief to be personal and are reluctant to speak openly about it. Creating safe places for people to share and to talk is an important part of healing.

As you prepare to honor those who serve on 9-11, keep in mind the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Together we can make a difference.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!