Chaplains discuss suicide prevention

  • Published
  • By Harry J. Lundy
  • Air Combat Command Public Affairs
Air Combat Command chaplains gathered April 27 through 29 to discuss the problem of suicide during a Comprehensive Airman Fitness conference in Newport News, Va.

During the conference, Dr. Thomas Joiner, the event's keynote speaker, shared his concern about the pandemic of suicide.

"Worldwide, over 1 million people commit suicide each year," he said. "In the U.S., 33,000 (people) are lost every year.

Doctor Joiner is the Robert O. Lawton distinguished professor of psychology at Florida State University.

In 2008 and 2009, there were 12.4 and 12.5 suicides, respectively, per 100,000 Airmen,.
This equates to more than 40 Airmen taking their lives each year.

In 2010, 18 active-duty members have taken their lives. Additionally, suicide rates in some career fields are more than double the Air Force rate, according to Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Carrol H. Chandler, in a memorandum.

"There are things that are driving that suicidal process," Doctor Joiner said. "These things are very treatable. They're very painful in the moment, but they're treatable and they're manageable."

A big contributor to suicide is major depressive disorder which Dr. Joiner described as a very painful thing to go through, and which causes a different frame of mind. Thoughts arise for which there are no solutions and no hope. Even so, there are very effective treatments for major depressive disorder and for all the other conditions that cause suicidal behavior.

Doctor Joiner also recommended that if a person sees warning signs of suicidal behavior, it is crucial to stay connected consistently, patiently and persistently as a friend.

"If you notice that things are not getting better, refer them to get professional care," Doctor Joiner said.

People need to look at the mental disorder of suicide with the same level of importance as cancer, Doctor Joiner said.

"Seventy-five years ago, cancer was as stigmatized as mental disorder is today," he said. "Now, we've got these amazing treatment facilities and we've got this amazing sense of compassion from the public at large."

It may take longer to change the public view of suicide for people to have the same sense of compassion as they would for cancer victims, the doctor said.

"That's where we've got to be and what we've got to shoot for," he said.

Chaplain (Col.) Howard Stendahl, the Air Combat Command chaplain, said suicide prevention is important to him for two reasons.

"As an Air Force chaplain, life is a sacred gift to me from the creator," Chaplain Stendahl said. "It is the greatest gift."

The second reason is that Gen. William Fraser III, the commander of ACC, has identified people as the most valued resource and wants to protect that asset.

"The issue that keeps (General Fraser) awake and is of his greatest concern is how to affirm, cherish, prize the lives of the people who have chosen to give a portion of their lives in service to the nation, its defense, specifically in Air Combat Command," Chaplain Stendahl said.

An important factor is creating community, and making each person feel important to the unit and integral to the mission, Chaplain Stendahl said.

"And if they have pastoral, mental health care and other care workers whom they trust, they will take advantage of that," he said. "I have found that to be the case."