The Air Force believes suicide is really about culture — so they're changing theirs

Elizabeth Howe
February 19, 2019 - 1:43 pm

Photo courtesy of DVIDS

Air Force leaders recently released a memo that hopes to change the culture around suicide prevention after 11 airmen and Air Force civilians died by suicide in the first four weeks of 2019. 

"Despite our collective efforts and responsibility for their well-being, suicide remains the leading cause of death for Airmen," read the memo signed by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Chief of Staff David Goldfein, and Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright. "These losses know neither grade, AFSC, status nor unit boundaries. They represent all of us." 

While the Air Force's suicide rate has remained relatively consistent over the past years, "one suicide is too many," the memo goes on to say. In an effort to achieve the Air Force's goal of zero suicides, their next move is a culture shift. 

"Suicide prevention is really about a culture shift," the memo reads. "Culture is our collective beliefs, actions and values; the things each of us say and do contributes to our Air Force culture. We need an Air Force culture where it is more common to seek help than to try to go at it alone." 

Along with the memo, the Air Force released a separate memo that outlined how this culture can be shifted — talk about times you struggled, encourage all Total Force Airmen to seek help early, dispel the myth that seeking help will have a negative career impact. Communicate in a way in which people feel valued, set norms that convey intolerance of any form of harassment, establish the expectation that everyone is responsible for preventing negative outcomes and increasing positive ones. 

Additionally, the handout suggests self-care practices and a breakdown for a balanced day — 2 hours of "me time," 8-10 hours of work, 5 hours unplugged/social/family time, and 7 hours of sleep. 

While the Air Force addresses its suicide issues through a focus on culture shift, other branches struggle to find the most effective way to reverse steady upticks in suicides. The Army is facing a 19 percent increase in the number of active duty suicides and the Marine Corps saw its highest suicide rate in ten years.

"Suicide is a difficult and complex issue but it is preventable," the memo closes. "It requires each of us to be involved and steadfast in our commitment to stop suicides. We expect each and every one of you to join our efforts in creating an environment where every Airman and family member can thrive." 

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