By Maj. Ebon Alley
19th Medical Operations Squadron
Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment of the Duty to Intervene series from Maj. Ebon Alley.
Firearms were used in 63 percent of active-duty Air Force suicides in 2013. By comparison, approximately 56 percent of suicides by male U.S. civilians annually involved firearms, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One intervention that is widely supported by research studies is limiting access to means. Limiting access enhances safety by removing opportunities for self-harm. The practice is also promoted as one of President Obama’s 19 Executive Actions to aid service members, veterans and their families.
The fundamental assumption underlying limiting access to means of self-harm is that, in many cases, periods of high suicide risk are relatively short. Therefore, limiting access may allow time for a crisis to pass. In other words, a recent study found that almost 50 percent of people reported an interval of no more than 10 minutes between their decision to act and their first suicide attempt. The information in this article will help you to intervene when you, your fellow Airmen, family members or friends are facing challenges that test their resilience.
In the U.S., limiting access involves disposing of unneeded medications and voluntary safe storage of firearms. If you have medications you wish to destroy, it is not recommended to flush them or throw them out. Instead, use a drop box, such as the one available at Jacksonville Police Department (501) 982-3191. The Drug Enforcement Administration will also periodically conduct drug takeback days on base.
If you are concerned about your own ability, or the ability of someone else, to safely maintain a firearm due to issues such as depression or dangerous thoughts, seek assistance regarding temporary storage through Security Forces or the First Sergeant. Remember that all firearms in base housing must be registered with Security Forces, and weapons cannot be stored in the dorms or temporary lodging. For more information contact 19th Security Forces at (501) 987-6644.
If you choose to voluntarily store your weapons, experts advise you to document the terms of the agreement. For instance, “I request person X to hold my weapons in their safe for one month.” The following are additional methods that can be utilized to limit access to means of self-harm:
Dismantling the firearm and giving the firing pin to a supervisor or significant other.
Storing the firearm in a tamper-proof safe or local armory.
Removal and safe storage of ammunition with a friend or family member.
Finally, for commanders and supervisors, it’s important to know that you may ask if a member plans to acquire or already possesses a privately-owned firearm if there is reasonable suspicion of elevated risk of harm to self or others. This recent policy change permits greater latitude in initiating interventions. Commanders are encouraged to add the following additional weapons safety questions to their Ask, Care, and Escort acronym:
Commander: Are you thinking of harming yourself or someone else?
Commander: Do you have access or plan on gaining access to a weapon in the near future?
Member: Yes, I own a firearm at home.
Commander: Would you like my assistance in finding safe storage for your weapon?
Commanders are encouraged to contact their local Judge Advocate General and mental health clinic for additional information.
Suicide remains a complex, public health concern that requires a multi-faceted and community-based approach. One intervention that shows promise is limiting access to means. By taking small steps to improve the safety of our community, we may afford a wingman a window of opportunity to connect with helping services needed to promote long-term change.
Remember, if you are concerned about someone you know, as always, call 911 if there is an emergency. However, our goal as a community is to intervene before stressors become unmanageable. It’s important for us to understand that we are not alone. There many helping agencies available including Mental Health (501) 987-7338, chaplains (501) 987-6014, and the Military Crisis Hotline (800) 273-8255 that can help you formulate and deliver a message of concern to another.
If you have additional questions, please feel free to contact the Mental Health clinic.