The label on a trigger lock at the firearms and ammunition counter at the Little Rock Air Force Base's exchange states that it should not be used with a loaded weapon. Air Force photo by SSgt. Juan Torres.
The Air National Guard wants to rely more heavily on chaplains to help combat suicides, following a recent analysis that discovered easy access to guns and a lack of preventative information contributed to most ANG suicides in 2018.
Ten of 12 ANG suicides that occurred from January to September 2018 were linked to guns, according to the first Suicide Analysis Board findings, which were presented July 11 during a training session for psychological health personnel at JB Andrews, Md.
Hoping to identify trends that could help ANG leaders better combat suicide in their ranks, the board considered factors that preceded each airmen’s death, how they died, and what actions leaders took afterward.
Current suicide prevention training is seen as “watered down,” according to the presentation, which noted “significant barriers to reporting mental health issues still exist.”
Investigators found that airmen had “available and immediate access” to weapons they used to take their own lives. In all but one case, relatives, wing colleagues, and ANG leadership told the board they weren’t properly trained to talk to airmen about firearms safety, and that they didn’t know what safe gun-storage options are at their disposal.
“People don’t want to give [firearms] up and leadership is afraid to even discuss it,” ANG Chief of Medical Operations Col. Stephanie Navas said.
ANG and the board recommend giving chaplains gun locks to offer to struggling airmen and emphasizing across the Guard that airman can confide in the Chaplain Corps.
ANG Psychological Health Program Manager SMSgt. Jerilyn Farrar’s organization often hands out gun locks, she told Air Force Magazine. Program staff encourage airmen to store their weapon and the gun lock key in separate parts of their homes. Going to fetch that key can make the difference between life and death.
“Studies have shown that that time that it takes to unlock the gun lock is a deterrent,” Farrar said.
Officials hope that chaplains can help overcome a negative stigma around reporting mental health issues. Chaplains aren’t required to report issues up the chain of command, so airmen can share their feelings without fearing judgment or that their trust will be betrayed.
“It’s a reality,” ANG Psychological Health Branch Director Susan Black said of that stigma. “Suicide is becoming an option, but yet help-seeking isn’t, and so we’re trying to change that culture.”
Of the 12 airmen who killed themselves in the studied time frame, 10 were men, 11 were enlisted, and their average age was 38. Two of the 12 airmen died by asphyxiation. Five of the Guardsmen were known to have thought about or attempted suicide before.
Seventeen ANG airmen killed themselves in 2018, but the board did not follow up on five of the suicides because they happened after September.
Officials acknowledge the Guard needs to do a better job of reaching out to airmen and their families to ensure they have a close bond with their wings, even if airmen only see their military colleagues in person a few times a month.
“The people closest to you know when something’s just not quite right with you, so what our goal is, is to try to connect with family members and spouses and parents when we have an idea that they may be going through something,” Farrar said. “That was something that was repetitive throughout many of the studies.”
The board also recommended revamping how the Guard analyzes medical records when new members join, as well as training to teach leaders how to handle suicides in their wing.
ANG aims to create an information campaign to quash Guardsmen’s worries that they might lose their security clearances or their place in the military if they report mental health concerns. The campaign would foster better communication between wing leaders and ANG Medical Group staff as well.
“We need to make sure that we’re able to message how we tell them, ‘You’re not going to get kicked out. You’re a trained asset,’” Navas said of at-risk airmen.
In the next two years, the board recommends developing “targeted suicide awareness and prevention training” and standardizing guidance and procedures for investigating ANG suicides at the wing and state levels.
Second Lt. Kate Morsch, deputy chief of the ANG’s Suicide Prevention Branch, said the board hopes to encompass more of the calendar year in the second round of board investigations. SAB investigations are expected to take place at least once a year as part of broader ANG suicide-prevention efforts.
This story has been updated to correct 2nd Lt. Morsch’s title within the ANG Suicide Prevention Branch.