Air Force chiefs urge more focus on mental health as suicides rise

Senior Air Force officials have pledged to improve airmen’s access to mental health care and urged commanders to take a more active role in supporting their troops, suggesting suicides are on the rise again.

Secretary Frank Kendall, the service’s top civilian official, and Air Force Chief Master Sergeant JoAnn Bass, her senior enlisted soldier, encouraged Airmen and Space Force keepers to look to broader support systems in a Facebook question-and-answer session Sept. 22 .

“I think all of us, at some point in our lives, [have] we had times when life wasn’t what we wanted it to be,” Kendall said. “There are things we can do to … recognize when someone is in trouble, let them know that someone cares and can reach out to them.” Let them know that whatever they are feeling right now is not something they will always feel.”

It is not clear how many airmen and guardians are believed to have killed themselves in the past year. The Air Force Department is no longer releasing its annual suicide data upon request, a Laurel Falls spokesman said Wednesday. These figures are included in the Pentagon’s quarterly updates on suicides and in its annual final report.

But Kendall pointed out that this year’s total exceeded that of fiscal 2021.

“We get about the same number every year. I think we can take it down,” he said. “Last year was pretty good; this year’s trends are not so good. … If we pay attention to this as leaders, we can make a difference.”

Seventy-one service members in the active-duty Air and Space Forces, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve died by suicide in fiscal year 2021 — the fewest in at least six years, according to Pentagon data. In contrast, that number jumped to 110 airmen and guardians killed each year in both 2019 and 2020.

Relationship problems, a sense of loss of purpose, and despair about quality of life and work are often factors in someone’s decision to end their life. Firearms are the leading cause of death by suicide for airmen and guardians in the continental United States, the Air Force said.

Active duty and National Guard suicide rates are comparable to the broader US population, while reserve rates are lower. Most people in the Air Force Department who died by suicide in 2020 were junior men between the ages of 23-30, the service said in April.

The service can’t do anything about the nationwide shortage of mental health providers that increases wait times for appointments, but it can encourage Airmen to build stronger communities.

“We can do things to help people become basically volunteers that people can talk to,” Kendall added. “We can do things that increase our staffing, that are more efficient … and we handle higher priority cases faster.”

Most people who seek mental health services need someone to listen, not clinical care, Bass said. But she wants to improve access to therapy and other resources for people before their emotions turn into depression or anxiety. The Air Force is also working to increase the number of advocates for victims of sexual assault.

The office still has a long way to go in combating the perception that receiving mental health care can harm one’s career trajectory, especially for those with security clearances or who carry a firearm for work.

Seeking help “demonstrates courage, maturity and judgment,” Kendall said. He said he sought out a therapist while going through a difficult divorce and is better for it.

Still, Bass acknowledged that staying in the service could do more harm than good for people who are deeply troubled.

“The truth is that some people, for the sake of their health, should probably take off that uniform,” she said. “We care more about their lives.”

Leaders up the chain of command need to set better examples of mental health and a balanced life, they said. At the same time, it is also up to frontline managers and other unit managers across the force to create a healthy culture.

One questioner urged the Air Force to offer leaders more guidance on what to do after a suicide.

“My airmen saw a three-day grounding due to a plane crash and only one day no-fly due to suicide,” she said. “We need a mechanism to assess psychological safety and ‘post.’ “

Bass directed the audience to resources available on the Air Force Emotional Resilience website. She and Kendall also emphasized the importance of continuing to grow as a leader and learn to care for others throughout a military career.

The Air Force is also looking for ways to better assess whether an organization is safe and healthy for Airmen.

“We’ve been in several meetings recently to talk about the need for more efficient and responsive ways to … get data from our service members about what’s the quality of life?” Bass said.

They are likely to turn to micro-surveys or quick surveys that take the pulse of the unit’s climate. But they don’t work unless enough airmen are responsive and honest, Kendall added.

“It’s hard to manage something if you don’t have good data, especially in an organization as big as the Department of the Air Force [or] Department of Defense,” he said. “Getting that feedback allows us to make better decisions and put better policies in place.”

The leaders urged commanders to work with subordinates who are going through a difficult period, rather than resorting to punishment. Poor performance, lack of motivation, and other problems can be telltale signs of burnout or depression, but can lead to disciplinary records.

“One of the contributors to suicide is people who are being investigated for disciplinary issues,” Kendall said. “Give them a chance to correct the problem or address the problem, and then see if performance goes up before you take a harsh disciplinary response.”

Bass also suggested that people write down the phone numbers of three people they can call in their darkest moments—before those moments are upon them.

“There’s always someone who can help you,” she said. “If you come up with your plan at your worst or when you’re in a crisis, it’s probably not going to be a great plan.”

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can contact the 24-hour Suicide and Crisis Line by dialing 988 or 1-800-273-8255. Veterans, military and their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for help.

Rachel Cohen joined the Air Force Times as a senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Med.), the Washington Post, and others.

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