Q: I have a friend who has been talking about suicide, but I fear they’ll damage their career if I tell anyone. My friend asked me not to say anything. What should I do?

Take all discussions about suicide seriously. Most people tell someone before they kill themselves. Encourage the person to seek help. Offer to accompany them to see a mental health provider. Ask them if they have a plan for suicide. If yes, ensure that you contact someone, such as their supervisor, Mental Health Clinic, or other helping resource, and don’t leave them alone until they receive help. It is better to have a friend who may be upset with you than a friend who is dead. If they are not suicidal, talk and listen to them and encourage them to seek help on their own. We know that seeking help on one’s own is far better than being sent over following misconduct or poor duty performance. Reinforce the idea of getting help early.

Q: The Air Force tells me that it’s okay to seek help, but I know of a co-worker who was kicked out because the unit discovered they were going to mental health. How do I know it is safe to get help on my own?

The Air Force advocates and promotes self-help behavior. In fact, the vast majority of people who seek help on their own never have their career affected. It is true in some cases an emotional condition may interfere with a person’s performance so much that the condition is not compatible with continued military service. These kind of cases truly are less frequent than you think.

Q: What should I do if my friend calls me in the middle of the night and tells me they have a plan for suicide?

Contact emergency medical services or security forces/police immediately. This should be considered an emergency. Do not try and guess as to whether they are really serious or not. If you happen to be near the person, stay with them until help arrives. Relay as much information about the situation as you can to the appropriate agencies, including the person’s current location and the plan for suicide. Making promises to the person not to tell will only increase their risk.

Q: How much will my unit know if I seek help at the Mental Health Clinic on my own?

Each provider is obligated to maintain confidentiality, but with certain limitations. Examples of these limitations would be in cases of voiced self-harm or harm to others, child or spouse abuse, or UCMJ violations among others. Your provider should discuss these limitations with you when you visit. The chaplain is the only individual who can offer full confidentiality.

Q: Is it true that if someone really wants to commit suicide, there is nothing anyone can do to stop him or her?

This is not true. Suicide is an ambivalent event. Wanting to commit suicide is not inherent and works against our natural instinct to survive. When life-stress events exceed coping skills, suicide may become an option. A plan for suicide is usually formulated over time. Frequently when the person has time to get treatment and discuss stressful events, suicide no longer looks like an attractive option.

Q: Does alcohol increase the chances that someone will commit suicide?

Alcohol affects judgment. Increased alcohol use has been shown to accompany other problems, such as increased impulsivity, depression, financial and social/relationship difficulties. Together, these may increase the risk for suicide.

Q: I know there are several places to get help on the base. Where is the best place to go?

All are good. Helping agencies include the Chaplain (full confidentiality and spiritual matters), Family Support Centers, Health and Wellness Centers (HAWC), Mental Health Clinic, and family, friends or supervisors. The Air Force encourages help-seeking behavior with any of these agencies or people. Regardless of the source, the main thing is that you receive some kind of help!

Q: I have a friend who talks vaguely about suicide, but they have not harmed themselves. How serious should I take them, or is this attention-seeking behavior?

You should be very concerned and encourage them to seek help on their own. Just because they haven’t harmed themselves in the past doesn’t mean they will not in the future. The best thing you can do is to let someone else know if a friend is talking about suicide. Be educated on what to look for and ask them about it. Being silent won’t help.

Q: I have heard that women attempt suicide more often, but are less successful than men. Is this true?

Yes. Even though four times as many men than women die by suicide, women attempt suicide more often. There are some theories behind this, specifically that the depression rates in woman are higher than men, and that men choose more lethal means of harming themselves.

Q: What is the highest suicide risk category in the Air Force?

White males, aged 25-34, and no longer married. Multiple indicators of increased vulnerability include relationship loss/problems, financial difficulties, under investigation or other legal problems, and alcohol abuse.

Q: I have heard that if someone is really depressed, asking him or her about suicide will plant the thought in his or her mind. Is this true?

No. They may be more appreciative if you ask them. It will let them know that someone cares enough to ask and open the door for talking. Chances are they have thought about suicide long before anyone asks them.

Q: I recently had a friend who told me they were suicidal. I was taken aback and didn’t really know what to say. Are there things I should or should not say?

DO ask if they have a plan. DO show concern/caring by asking open-ended questions such as, “What has happened that you are considering suicide?” Listen and be direct and honest. DON’T give advice or be judgmental or lecture the person on what a stupid idea it is. DON’T dare them to do it or leave them alone, or promise to keep things secret. DO seek immediate assistance for the person, if they have a plan to harm themselves.

Q: What is the top risk factor associated with suicide events in the AF?

Relationship problems, followed by legal problems.

Q: Can I really make a difference?

Absolutely! Building a sense of community and connection with unit members is a powerful way to prevent suicide risks.