Calling all Wingmen: Suicide hits hard during winter months

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Emerald Ralston
  • 341st Space Wing Public Affairs Office
There are few experiences more emotionally intense than walking in on someone who is attempting suicide. 

As I opened the door, there she was, knife blade to her arm. She looked up, startled, but with no intention to stop. 

It was then my responsibility to ease her down, take the knife and help her figure out why she was doing what she was doing, why she wanted to die and, of course, why she might want to live. 

As the intervention went on, my heart kept racing, with everyone looking at me, waiting for me to save someone's life. 

When the simulation was complete and I had successfully acquired the knife and came up with a safe plan for her, the audience clapped and brought me back to reality. 

It was only a simulation. But the intensity was real. 

This was an exercise in the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training course I attended this year. The class focused on suicide prevention techniques and the methods of saving lives from suicide. 

I took the class because suicide hits close to home for many people. 

Just two weeks ago, a childhood friend of mine who had recently returned from Iraq died by suicide in his home. Aside from my personal experiences, I've been there physically and emotionally for many friends who have been close with suicide victims. It doesn't only affect me but many members and families of Team Malmstrom have been affected by suicide in the past years as well. 

Suicide affects Montanans in a specific way because Montana has teetered between having the second and third highest suicide rate in America for several years, being consistently outranked only by Alaska, according to the Web site 

Those of us who have gone through a winter here can attest to how hard it can be to wake up in the dark, go to work before the sun rises, and get off in the afternoon to an already setting sun. And I know personally, working in a building with very few windows and a lot of fluorescent lighting, the effects of darkness can become overwhelming. 

I was fortunate enough to arrive here in the spring and get used to Malmstrom and Montana in the pleasant weather before being thrown into the cold darkness of winter. For people who arrive in the fall and winter months, especially those who are used to warmer, brighter climates, adjusting to life here can be more of a struggle. 

But weather certainly isn't the only factor that contributes to suicide in Montana. 

Malmstrom has the youngest population in the Air Force. Many members of our community are away from their homes and families for the first time, which can be significantly distressing for anyone. Also, the schedules of Airmen who deploy to the missile field can be hard on the spouses and significant others of the Airmen, causing stress in relationships which can lead to depression and suicidal feelings. 

And of course, the young Airmen are not the only ones affected. Many middle-aged and elderly individuals who don't feel like they're accomplishing anything anymore; who feel as if they've passed their prime or there is nothing to look forward to die by suicide as well. Everyone is at risk and everyone can be affected. 

That's why it is important to know warning signs and be a little more compassionate to people around you who seem to be having a hard time. 

I know we've all been to numerous suicide prevention briefings, and when that time of year comes around, there seems to be a collective groan from the Malmstrom population. But suicide is real and needs to be addressed in a real manner. 

It doesn't take much for someone to turn ideas into actions. I've talked to many people who think about suicide frequently but never follow through because they realize it isn't the answer; it's just an idea. 

But one single event or the realization of prolonged unhappiness can be all it takes to put those thoughts to motion. 

Look out for your Wingman and be aware of the following signs of suicidal behavior:
· A prior suicide attempt; 
· Having a psychiatric disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or personality disorders;
· Alcohol or substance abuse;
· A family history of mental disorders or substance abuse;
· A family history of suicide;
· Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse;
· Firearms in the home; and
· A significant medical illness, such as cancer or chronic pain.

This list is not all-inclusive but people should be on the lookout for these signs in conjunction with mood changes, depression, sudden bouts of happiness following a depressed stage, giving away valuable possessions and talking, even joking, about suicide. 

Keep in mind someone may be dealing with everything on the list and not be suicidal, while another person won't be experiencing any of those things but may still be considering suicide. So keep your eyes and ears open for the following signs as well:
· Talking about suicide, including making such statements as "I'm going to kill myself," "I wish I were dead" or "I wish I hadn't been born"
· Withdrawing from social contact and having an increased desire to be left alone
· Wide mood swings, such as being emotionally high one day but deeply discouraged the next
· Preoccupation with death and dying or violence
· Changes in routine, including eating or sleeping patterns
· Personality changes, such as becoming very outgoing after being shy
· Risky or self-destructive behavior, such as drug use or unsafe driving
· Giving away belongings or getting affairs in order
· Saying goodbye to people as if they won't be seen again 

Expressing concern might be hard to do for some people, but there are other ways to address a suicidal individual than face-to-face. Contact the person's first sergeant or supervisor. Speak with his or her spouse. Ask a friend of theirs to keep a closer eye on them. Anything you can do to help prevent a potential suicide should not be inhibited by embarrassment. This is someone's life. 

There are many resources for people who are considering suicide. The mental health office in the clinic is always there to help and can be reached at 731-4451. Great Falls' own suicide hotline can be reached 24-hours a day at 453-4357 or through 1-800-273-TALK(8255). 

There are always resources available. If you or anyone you know starts thinking about suicide, seeking help early may help you discover your reasons for living before it's too late.