NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.— Fewer airmen and guardians are suspected of killing themselves so far in 2021 than at the same point in recent years, a hopeful sign that the Department of the Air Force’s efforts to address mental health issues may be working.
Fifty-seven people across the Air Force and Space Force, including active-duty, Guard and Reserve airmen and guardians and civilians, had died this year in presumed suicides as of Monday, according to a service spokesperson. In comparison, that number stood at 50 at the beginning of August 2018 and 78 at the beginning of August 2019. Suicide figures remain unofficial until the military investigates each death.
The Department of the Air Force recorded 109 total suicides among troops — but not civilians — in both 2019 and 2020. Those two years each had nearly 30 more suicides than in 2018, the highest level of suicides since 2015. The Air Force has noted that it loses more airmen to suicide than any other cause.
“I get the update every week on where our numbers are,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown told reporters Sept. 21 at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space, Cyber conference. “We’re doing better, but we cannot pat ourselves on the back, because every suicide is one suicide too many.”
“In the general population, about 5 percent of people are thinking about suicide. But the rate is higher in the military,” Susie Reece, a suicide awareness and intervention training facilitator for the company LivingWorks, said in a recent Air Force release.
Service leaders have focused more heavily on suicide prevention since deaths spiked in 2019, when all wings were ordered to pause operations for a day and discuss mental health with their airmen. That approach gave commanders flexibility in how they wanted to tackle the topic, but proved to be piecemeal across the force.
Airmen shouldn’t wait on Air Force leadership at the Pentagon to solve the problem of suicide, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass told airmen at the conference Sept. 20.
“It’s not going to be solved in a program. It’s always interesting to me when people say, ‘Hey, what are you and Gen. Brown going to do about suicides in the Air Force?’” Bass said. “We can’t impact that at our level.”
Instead, she said, Air Force units need to create their own culture of mental wellness and support for airmen, with the resources to properly address emotional resilience.
The Air Force launched a new branch in its personnel policy shop for a more holistic approach to crisis-prevention resources. These range from the “True North” program, which embeds mental health professionals and religious support teams into units, to practical aids such as telephone helplines and firearm locks.
That organization, known as “A1Z,” aims to offer multiple points of entry where people can go to learn how to manage stress and more complex mental health issues, no matter their career field or rank. General counseling needs, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, family difficulties, abuse and workplace frustrations like short-staffing and burnout are among the issues for which airmen can seek help.
That resilience team has efforts underway to broaden its impact across the force.
“They brought together stakeholders across our enterprise to focus on [resilience], but more importantly, they also brought airmen and guardians to be part of their working groups to help us get after some actionable solutions that are helpful to your organizations and your installations,” Bass said at the conference.
The Air Force’s top enlisted leader is also crowdsourcing airmen’s stories to create a to-do list of further ways to help airmen and their families. Family members may be able to determine, sooner than an airman’s coworkers, that something is off, especially for those whose professional relationships have faltered while working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t think we’ve done enough to be able to make sure that we’re supporting our families who are dealing with the challenges of mental health and mental wellness, and we’ve got to make those changes,” Bass said.
On the Space Force side, the service believes having 16,000 people makes it small enough to foster closer relationships and prioritize quality of life better than the older military branches.
Airmen and guardians are using mental health care and telehealth services more often now, prompting the Department of the Air Force to look at how to leverage those options in the long run. That requires overcoming challenges like spotty Internet connections and patient privacy concerns, while capitalizing on the successes of initiatives like embedded mental health providers and on-the-job acupuncture.
Military mental health providers argue the service must also refine how it pairs people with the right experts to treat their individual concerns and do more to battle the negative stigmas around seeking psychological care.
“We need to rethink and change the way we operate as a mental health system,” Air Force clinical psychologist Lt. Col. Aaron Tricht said in a recent press release. “We won’t meet forthcoming demands if we don’t start changing how we operate.”
Even simply making troops feel heard can help. While on the road, Brown makes a point to eat a meal with airmen and get their perspectives.
What do they want from their leadership? To care about them, Brown said.
“When we do that, that helps us with resiliency and building strong teams, where we get to know each other and can support each other,” he said.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or the Veterans and Military Crisis line by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1, or by sending a text to 838255.
Editor’s note: This story was corrected at 10:07 p.m. on Sept. 27 to attribute a quote to Susie Reece.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.