In 2019, the Department of the Air Force suicide count and rate were the highest in recent history.
Initially in 2020, suicide numbers declined but as the coronavirus pandemic continued, the suicide trajectory increased and returned to the high levels experienced the previous year.
The Department’s efforts to address these trends focus on improving care for Airmen, Guardians and families. In 2019, the former Chief of Staff of the Air Force directed a Resilience Tactical Pause to combat the increasing suicide trend, providing the opportunity for Total Force Airmen to gather with their leaders and coworkers to focus on connectedness and resilience. In 2020, we shifted to remaining “socially connected and physically distanced” emphasizing the challenges of the COVID environment.
“One suicide is too many. Our forces and families, like most Americans, experienced many stressors related to the pandemic and loss of connections,” said Brig. Gen. Claude Tudor, Air Force integrated resilience director.
The Department’s suicide prevention strategy can be summarized as: ‘connect, detect, protect and equip.’
“Leaders must connect with their teammates to detect those at risk,” said Tudor. “Simultaneously, we must create protective environments that encourage help seeking and equip Airmen, Guardians and family members with the resources needed to meet the life stressors we face.”
To empower families, the Department developed an online, family-based suicide prevention training to educate and equip family members when dealing with the signs and symptoms of suicide.
“Families are a key sensor and solution to our care and support ecosystem,” Tudor said. “They are often the first to sense distress in their Airmen or Guardians. They are the key to finding potential solutions to prevent suicide and other issues associated with interpersonal and self-directed violence.”
Additionally, the Department of the Air Force distributed more than 200,000 gunlocks in 2020.
“Since 2015, personally-owned firearms are involved in more than 70% of Department of the Air Force suicide deaths,” said Maj. Jordan Simonson, Air Force suicide prevention research scientist. “Putting time and space between a person in distress and access to lethal means can make all the difference in preventing injury.”
“We encourage ‘going SLO,’ said Simonson. “Using Safes, Locks or Outside the home storage options help prevent accidents and intentional self-harm.”
Finding solutions to suicide is a continuous process that requires continuous refinement and collaboration.
“For 2021 and beyond, it’s an all-hands-on-deck engagement strategy,” said Tudor. “It will take all of us across all levels of command alongside our Total Force teammates to get after the programs, tools and resources available and put them into practice. We need to maintain engagements with our sister services, academia, industry and other government agencies to refine our approach and implement new evidence-based solutions.”
“We remain focused on suicide prevention and keeping our Airmen’s resiliency as a priority,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. “We can never stop working to find ways to combat suicide and take care of our Airmen and their families.”
The Department will hold a resiliency strategy summit this April where a diverse group of resiliency experts, civilian organizations, families and military members from all Department of the Air Force components will gather to propose a new resiliency strategy to meet today’s demanding environment.
“We are committed to seeking innovative ways to better care for Guardians and their families, as well as the Airmen who support our Space Force team,” said Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations. “We are establishing and distilling a unique culture across this new service, one that values help-seeking and fosters resilience.”
During the summit, experts will review a vast collection of data from across the Air and Space Forces gathered by family, spouses and service members. This collection will help the Department analyze this data and continue to refine the new strategy that senior leaders will learn from to make future decisions for the Department.