Air Force eyeing more mental health measures as suicides continue

Military, veterans, and families with suicidal thoughts should call the 24-Hour Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, text 838255, or visit:

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said on Wednesday that despite efforts to focus on mental health and strengthen firearm safety, the suicide rate has remained “pretty stable” and the military will continue to curb suicide numbers. He said he was still struggling.

“Every time there’s a suicide in our unit, we get an email. We’re looking at the numbers weekly to see how we’re doing,” Kendall said during a livestreamed discussion with Air Force Chief Sergeant Joan Bass. said in “Unfortunately, it’s pretty stable.”

“All of these incidents could have probably been prevented,” he added.

This is the latest in a long-running Air Force battle to stem the suicide crisis it shares with the rest of the military and the American people at large.

According to the Pentagon’s latest quarterly update, 24 airmen died of suspected suicide in the first three months of 2023. This is consistent with the trend for most quarters over the last two years.

Ninety airmen in active duty units, Air Force Reserves, and the Air National Guard are believed to have died by suicide in 2022, according to Pentagon data. The number will not be confirmed until the military finishes investigating the circumstances of each person’s death.

If true, this number would be higher than the 71 confirmed suicides in 2021, but lower than the 110 airmen who took their own lives in 2020 and 2019.

Kendall noted that about 25 out of 100,000 soldiers die by suicide each year. This compares to 15 per 100,000 suicides nationwide, according to a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It can happen in your community too…and we all need to be aware of that,” said Kendall.

Kendall’s comments come as the Department of Defense begins rolling out new policies aimed at encouraging the military to self-report mental health concerns, including suicidal thoughts, and making them more accessible to care. Ta.

Under the “Brandon Act,” part of the 2021 law that the Pentagon will implement this year, the military can ask commanders and supervisors for prompt referral to mental health services.

Service members can seek support for any reason and do not have to explain the reason for the referral. Commanders and supervisors must honor those requests and make mental health clinic appointments by the end of the next day.

“What I’ve found the Brandon Act to help… is really triage,” Bass said. “You can get to a mental health professional more quickly.”

Leaders can still refer armed forces to mental health services without being asked, and armed forces can also seek care without going through the chain of command.

The Air Force has also set up a team of about 60 people to discuss ways to make soldiers and their families more resilient.

Ideas include transforming the local suicide prevention program known as ‘ASIST’ into a service-wide effort. Created by advocacy group LivingWorks, the two-day training teaches participants how to identify when someone is at risk of suicide, intervene, and develop a plan to keep them safe.

Bass also called for the creation of an on-base wellness center that brings together therapists, pastors and other resources under one roof.

These reforms build on past efforts to distribute more gunlocks, which could delay people’s access to lethal weapons. Form a local wellness team that understands the stressors specific to your particular station. Make mental health resources more visible. Dispel negative stigma about asking for help, etc.

“That’s what’s happening now,” Bass said. “We look forward to sharing them with the field in the coming weeks.”

The Air Force is also stepping up training to navigate mental health crises and use those services, she said.

The service is preparing to make a professional development seminar, known as the “Fundamentals” course, mandatory for enlisted airmen. These will teach airmen how to navigate difficult conversations about issues such as mental health, among other leadership lessons.

Kendall and Bass encourage airmen and parents to reach out to people they trust, stay involved in activities they enjoy, adopt healthy habits, and seek professional help when needed. Did.

“Mental health is healthy and needs to be treated as such,” Kendall said. “It shows courage and strength to go and ask for help when you need it.”

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times in March 2021 as a senior reporter. Her work has been published in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, The Frederick News Post (Maryland), The Washington Post, and others.

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