You can make a difference for someone struggling with suicidal thoughts with as little as eye contact and a friendly smile, an arm around the shoulder, or a kind word at the right time.
Everyone has a role to play in preventing suicide, a key theme of the Department of Defense’s #BeThere Campaign, which encourages making a difference through every day connections.
“Connection saves lives,” said Col. David Linkh, the Air Force Suicide Prevention Program Manager. “Isolation, alienation and feeling of a lack of belonging places folks at risk.”
Suicide is a major public health concern in the U.S., including for the Armed Forces. One of the most important and simplest ways to fight back against this threat is to build connections with people in your life, and make sure that people don’t feel alone and isolated.
“If a fellow Airman seems to be struggling, make simple gestures,” said Linkh. “Have lunch with them, talk to them, include them. Ask them how they are doing, or about their family. Stop by their desk and share a little bit about yourself.”
In the right circumstances, those simple, everyday actions really can save a life.
Recognizing that someone is at risk of suicide isn’t always possible. There isn’t always an obvious or consistent sign that someone may be struggling with suicidal thoughts. People can hide or compartmentalize the underlying stress that lead to suicidal behavior, but there are things you can watch out for.
“We tend think in terms of two things – risk factors and warning signs,” said Linkh. “Risk factors are some of the larger life factors that we sometimes see, like relationship, legal, financial or workplace issues. Warning signs are more behavior changes. That can include mood swings, irritability, anger, depression or social withdrawal.”
This can be especially true for people who are usually engaged and outgoing. It can be a concerning sign if they start avoiding eye contact, skipping social events and stop associating with family, friends or coworkers. Drug or alcohol abuse is another critical indicator that a person may be dealing with issues that could lead to self-harm.
There are some other warning signs that a wingman, supervisor or colleague might notice as well.
“Changes in work behavior, like showing up late to work, unexplained absences, or missed deadlines by folks who were previously on the spot can be concerning,” said Linkh. “Really, any change in behavior, especially one that suggests the person may be struggling in areas of their life. People shouldn’t be afraid to engage on these issues in a supportive way.”
If you are concerned about a person, start by just talking to them. It may seem simple, but not only can it help you get a sense of whether something is bothering them, it also reinforces relationships and can keep the person from feeling isolated. Being attentive to someone struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression can encourage them to open up and tell you that they are having trouble.
“We can’t always know what our wingmen or coworkers are dealing with,” said Linkh. “Taking the time to know one another and go out of our way to help each other can help change the culture. Small acts of kindness, small moments of connection can make us all safer.”
For more information about suicide prevention and additional resources, visit the Air Force Medical Service Suicide Prevention page, or the U.S. Air Force Wingman Online page. If you are having suicidal thoughts or are worried that someone you know may be about to engage in self-harm, call the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press “1” for assistance.