Gauging Suicide’s Impact on USAF’s Total Force in 2020

 In U.S. Air Force, COVID-19, Defense, Air, Forces & Capabilities

As the Defense Department pre­pares to release its Annual Suicide Report in the coming weeks, Air Force Magazine details the impact sui­cide has had on the Total Force so far in 2020, and how the service’s top uni­formed lead­ers and its reserve com­po­nent are work­ing to tackle the issue.

Total Force

As of Sept. 16, 98 Airmen had taken their own lives in 2020 — putting the ser­vice “almost exact­ly on pace” to hit the same level of sui­cide as it did in 2019, when it undertook a Resilience Tactical Pause to address the issue, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. told reporters during a media round­table held as part of the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

Brown said the lack of con­nec­tion during the pan­dem­ic has exac­er­bat­ed the prob­lem, but he out­lined sev­er­al steps the ser­vice is taking to combat sui­cide within its ranks, includ­ing:

  • Pushing out “a playbook” to lead­ers in the field. This com­ment wasn’t a ref­er­ence to a new pub­li­ca­tion, but to the gen­er­al wealth of pre-exist­ing resources avail­able on USAF’s resilience web­page, USAF spokesper­son Capt. Leah F. Brading later clar­i­fied to Air Force Magazine. “Gen[.] Brown recent­ly remind­ed com­man­ders in a call to action to use the resources like those on resilience.af.mil and these talking points/questions to help guide on-going dis­cus­sions,” she wrote in a Sept. 18 email.
  • Increasing USAF’s use of tele­men­tal health care
  • Figuring out how to loop mil­i­tary family mem­bers into the service’s resilien­cy train­ing efforts to “make them part of the sup­port net­work,” since any of these indi­vid­u­als “could be the first sensor to really help us out.”
  • Examining how the ser­vice can guar­an­tee Airmen “a good tran­si­tion hand­off into … their family and friends,” so none of them “fall through the cracks.”

Brown said “prob­a­bly about 45 per­cent” of Air Force sui­cides stem from rela­tion­ship prob­lems, so he also wants to increase the number of coun­selors who are able to “talk to our young Airmen about rela­tion­ships,” advise them on how they can cul­ti­vate mean­ing­ful ones, and build resilien­cy so that rela­tion­ship efforts don’t leave them feel­ing “crushed.”

At the same con­fer­ence, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass said she’s asked her team to work with the Surgeon General com­mu­ni­ty and USAF resilience per­son­nel to ini­ti­ate work­ing groups on mental health. She said these groups will address steps the ser­vice needs to take, and to iden­ti­fy USAF poli­cies that can be changed (as well as Defense Department-level ones that might require Office of the Secretary of Defense inter­ven­tion to change). This should ten­ta­tive­ly equip the ser­vice to “part­ner with those who fight on … the Hill for our Airmen,” she said.

The Air Force also needs more mental health pro­fes­sion­als. “We’re putting all of this on our mental health Airmen, but we don’t have enough of them,” Bass said.

The Air Force has a respon­si­bil­i­ty to care for those Airmen whose psy­cho­log­i­cal health sit­u­a­tions may dis­qual­i­fy them from con­tin­ued ser­vice, she added. 

“Now, here’s a hard truth — and I know for some people this may not be wholly sat­is­fy­ing — but there are some people who have gone through so much trauma or have mental health chal­lenges that ser­vice may not be where they need to be,” she said. “But, … we owe them … ser­vice. We owe them some­thing to help get them back on the right track, to help get them in a place where they are healthy and okay, and that’s okay.”

Air Force Reserve

As of Sept. 22, eight Reserve Airmen had taken their own lives so far in 2020, Air Force Reserve Command spokesper­son Sean P. Houlihan told Air Force Magazine via email.

“While a decrease from this time last year, there remains an empha­sis among squadron com­man­ders and senior enlist­ed lead­ers to stay con­nect­ed with Airmen through the chal­lenges of the COVID-19 telework/virtual envi­ron­ment and the tyran­ny of dis­tance, as many Reservists do not live close to their super­vi­sors,” Houlihan wrote.

Since the Total Force under­took a Resilience Tactical Pause last year, the com­mand trained Reservists “in every status and at every level” to rec­og­nize what “stress, fatigue, and sui­ci­dal ten­den­cies” look like, Houlihan noted. 

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has yet to cause “a marked uptick in psy­cho­log­i­cal health visits” among Reservists, though he noted that the Air Force’s embrace of tele­men­tal health means Reserve mental health pro­fes­sion­als may also treat Airmen via vir­tu­al appoint­ments.

The com­mand rec­og­nizes the new coro­n­avirus crisis likely has future chal­lenges in store for AFRC per­son­nel and their fam­i­lies, and it’s empow­er­ing wing lead­ers with “tools to aggres­sive­ly reach out” to these indi­vid­u­als. Houlihan said these tools include master resilien­cy train­ers, also known as MRTs. 

“MRTs are from var­i­ous back­grounds to include psy­cho­log­i­cal health, Violence Prevention Integrators (VPI), Airmen and Family Readiness and Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARC) to just name a few,” Houlihan wrote.

The com­mand is equipped with over 100 of these train­ers, who are keep­ing in touch with Reservists via vir­tu­al plat­forms. 

Air Force Reserve Chief Lt. Gen. Richard W. Scobee also has gained more flex­i­bil­i­ty to help Reserve Airmen in crisis, inde­pen­dent of their status, Houlihan said. 

“He has told com­man­ders, chiefs, and front-line super­vi­sors through social media and vir­tu­al visits to take care of Airmen first then work out the status piece,” he said. 

Other recent steps the Reserve has taken to boost resilience include:

  • Employing 30 full-time first sergeants around AFRC and 10 full-time chap­lains at its host wings, a plan that Air Force Magazine first reported in February
  • Starting a video-based engage­ment cam­paign where­in Reservists “share their sto­ries of phys­i­cal, mental, and spir­i­tu­al well­be­ing, as well as over­com­ing per­son­al or pro­fes­sion­al adver­si­ty”
  • Conducting wing-level resilience tac­ti­cal pauses that aim to halt sui­cides, under­score the urgency of mental health, and signal-boost the rel­e­vant “tools, resources, and sup­port” that are avail­able to Reservists
  • Offering the Reserve’s Yellow Ribbon Program vir­tu­al­ly
  • Creating a newslet­ter for soon-to-deploy Airmen and their fam­i­lies that “has valu­able resources and con­tacts to use both before, during, and after the deploy­ment,” Houlihan wrote.

Air National Guard

Eleven Air National Guard Airmen had taken their own lives as of Sept. 24, ANG spokesper­son Lt. Col. Devin T. Robinson told Air Force Magazine in an email the same day. According to Robinson, ANG’s year-to-date total  “is track­ing exact­ly” with the number of sui­cides it had record­ed at the same time last year.

“The Air National Guard is com­mit­ted to pre­vent­ing sui­cides and has a host of resilien­cy tools and resources avail­able to target areas of great­est con­cern to our Air National Guard Airmen and their family mem­bers,” Robinson wrote. He also said ANG is ded­i­cat­ed to slash­ing the stigma asso­ci­at­ed with asking for help and values Airmen who reach out for sup­port.

Air Force Magazine source|articles

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