Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is located in Greene and Montgomery counties and is the Dayton region’s largest employer.

As suicides rise, Air Force orders a pause to focus on mental health

With an eye on an alarming rise in suicide rates, the Air Force has ordered all wings to stand down for one day in coming weeks to focus on suicide prevention and emotional well being.

It’s a directive that originates at the very top of the Air Force. In a message sent to commanders Thursday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein gave wings until Sept. 15 to hold what he called a “resilience tactical pause.”

Col. Thomas Sherman, 88th Air Base Wing and Wright-Patterson installation commander, said in an e-mail the local base and its units are taking the issue seriously.

“We received the Air Force-wide directive for the ‘resiliency tactical pause,’ and we share our leaders’ concerns about the well-being of all of our airmen, officers and civilians,” Sherman said. “Suicide is the leading cause of death in the Air Force and we must collectively own this problem as we work to take care for those who may be suffering.”

Wright-Patterson’s leadership team is working on scheduling a day to actively focus on the problem, Sherman added.

“This effort will be multi-fold by starting an ongoing dialogue about the force’s well-being, looking for ways that we can provide resilience care in a more effective manner and inculcating it into a part of our daily lives. We know that it’s going to require continuous engagement, but it is what we must do in caring for our brothers and sisters who stand beside us each day,” the colonel said.

In a widely distributed video, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said 78 airmen have taken their own lives in 2019.

“We lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy,” Wright said in the video. “Even more than combat. Seventy-eight of our brothers and sisters have given up on life in this year alone — 78.”

That’s 28 more than the number of suicides at this time last year, he said.

Before this year, the number of Air Force suicides had subsided somewhat even as they rose in other military branches, national data shows.

In a Department of Defense report covering all military service branches, the number of active-duty suicide deaths increased in calendar-year 2018 by 40 compared to suicides in calendar 2017 (325 versus 285 deaths).

For Air Force active-duty personnel, suicides fell by three for calendar-year 2018, the report said.

Also in 2018, the number of Reserve personnel suicides across all service branches fell by 12 compared to 2017, 81 versus 93 deaths, the same report shows. Among Air Force Reserve members, suicides decreased by eight.

Airman Xinhua Mesenberg texted his parents before he took his own life last January. “The stress life has given me finally broke my will to live,” the text said, according to a CBS News report.

“If we don’t do something, we could lose up to 150, 160 airmen in 2019,” Wright said in the video. “We can’t let this keep happening.”

The resiliency pause is meant to be a “break in the daily grind,” he said. “We can focus on our airmen and their well being.”

This is meant to be more than a one-day effort, Wright emphasized. He expects an “ongoing dialogue” between airmen, command teams and agencies to determine what can be done to address the problem.

“This is your day,” the non-commissioned officer said. “So make it your own. We won’t tell you want to do. We won’t tell you how to do it. You know best what your teams need.”

This is a growing problem in civilian life, as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates have risen more than 30 percent in half of all states since 1999. And more than half of people who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition, the CDC reports.

There are some 8,000 airmen and airwomen, including reservists, stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, one of the largest Air Force bases in the nation.

Kristin DeWitt, a professor of psychology at Cedarville University, said she admires the idea of an entire military branch taking a mental health day. She said the move makes the problem one that the entire Air Force shoulders together. That in itself pushes back against the isolation that some suicidal people can sometimes experience.

“When people remain in a stressed state, that can lead to overwhelming hopelessness and helplessness, and that leads to isolation,” DeWitt said.

Those experiencing suicidal feelings should understand that those feelings will change, DeWitt said.

“I think people would benefit from realizing that those feelings, as intense as they are, are temporary. A suicidal crisis is almost always temporary,” she said.

While suicidal feelings can distort one’s thinking, DeWitt said taking a few simple “action steps” can make a difference.

Her advice: Wait. Don’t do anything drastic for 24 hours. Talk to others, including a friend, a pastor or a counselor. Avoid alcohol and drugs, many of which are depressants. Try processing feelings through exercise.

Finally, take hope, DeWitt said.

“People do get through this,” she said.

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