Breaking down the stigma: Air Force addresses suicides

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JOINT BASE CHARLESTON — According to a Jan. 31 Stars and Stripes news article, U.S. Air Force officials at the Pentagon confirmed 137 Airmen committed suicide in 2019, saying it was the highest reported number in U.S. Air Force history.

At Charleston Air Force Base, mental health workers say it is as important as ever to get involved in Airmen’s mental readiness.

The 628th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron (OMRS) Mental Health Clinic works to ensure Airmen are mentally fit. The clinic provides care to Airmen seeking help, and will even embed mental health technicians into units in need of immediate assistance.

“One of the under-utilized tools we have are Unit Needs Assessments,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Aaron Smith, a mental health technician assigned to the 628th OMRS. “Whenever we embed in a unit we are in direct communication with leadership. If we start noticing mental health trends in a unit, we can act as the feedback channel for any Airman who doesn’t feel comfortable going to leadership with issues themselves.”

Smith said it is just as important for Airmen to assess mental health issues like they would physical injuries, and that seeking help for even seemingly minor issues is encouraged, even if it seems taboo.

“It seems mental health has always had a stigma,” said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Miranda Guittar, a mental health technician assigned to the 628th OMRS. “Especially when suicides happen, unfortunately people want somebody to blame. Collectively, it’s everybody’s problem.”

Guittar cited Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright’s statements on Airman mental health as an example of how leaders should be thinking of a way forward.

On Aug. 1, 2019, Wright announced in an official video 78 Airmen committed suicide during the year. The number would eventually increase to 137 across active duty, guard, and reserve components.

“Our teammates are taking their own lives,” said Wright. “We lose more Airmen to suicide than any other single enemy, even combat. We have to dedicate ourselves every single day to building strong and healthy Airmen.”