A major increase in suicide numbers this year has led the Air Force to declare a one-day stand-down for all wings to focus on prevention efforts.
This year, 79 Air Force service members have taken their own lives, compared with 50 at the same time a year ago. This year’s current tally nearly equals the total for all of 2018, when there were 80 suicides (60 active-duty personnel, 17 Air National Guard members, three Air Force reservists).
“We can’t let this keep happening,” said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright. “This is our problem, and we have to dedicate ourselves every single day to building strong and healthy airmen, supporting and engaging teams, and cultures of trust and respect to help keep these airmen hopeful. … We have to get this thing turned around.”
The Air Force is right to take this action. As Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein observes, “Taking care of our airmen and their families so they can take care of the mission is our most sacred duty as leaders.” This, indeed, is an obligation for any organization. Mental health concerns deserve far more attention across all of our society.
Air Force wings have until Sept. 15 to hold their safety stand-down. Local units have flexibility on how specifically to conduct the pause, though with the directive from headquarters that the stand-down mustn’t be merely a “one-day effort to check a box.” Air Force headquarters will provide resources to help.
“Our teammates are taking their own lives,” Wright said in a video last week, when the suicide total was 78. “We lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy — even more than combat. That’s 78 teammates. That’s 78 wingmen. That’s 78 spouses. That’s 78 brothers and sisters and sons and daughters.”
There has been one additional suicide since the release of the video, bringing this year’s total to 79.
It’s difficult so far to identify the specific factors behind the significant increase in this year’s suicides, Wright told Air Force Magazine.
Suicide prevention “is very much a leadership issue,” the Air Force says. Leaders have a duty to “create climates in which service members are encouraged to seek the help they need.”
The official Air Force recommendations on suicide prevention state: “Take all comments about suicide seriously. Be an active listener and let your wingman tell you about their challenges. Although it can be awkward, it’s important to ask the tough questions about whether or not your wingman is thinking about harming or killing himself. … Care for your wingman by calmly listening and expressing concern.”
“Make every single airman count, every single day,” Wright said in the video. “You know, someone right now in your organization is struggling.” The Air Force is pursuing an immensely worthy cause. It’s an invaluable achievement when an individual is saved from despair and self-harm.