WARNER ROBINS -- After having a record eight suicides in 2008, Robins Air Force Base launched an aggressive anti-suicide campaign that appears to be having an effect.
In 2009, the suicides dropped to four, with three in 2010 and four last year.
But that’s still not good enough for Col. James Dienst, commander of the 78th Medical Group.
“At Robins, absolutely our goal is zero,” he said. “That’s kind of our driving philosophy. We pray in 2012 we will have zero.”
In the U.S., about one in 10,000 people commit suicide each year. For Robins, that would equate to two or three suicides in a year.
The base’s anti-suicide campaign, called “You Matter,” has implemented a number of initiatives, including better coordination of services on base and mental health services in the community. It also emphasizes the importance of people reaching out when they are having trouble and encourages employees to take notice of co-workers and speak up if they think someone is having problems.
One troubling trend last year is that three of four suicides were active-duty personnel. That hasn’t been the case in previous years in which most suicides have been civilians.
Maj. Philip Bascom, the mental health commander, said he isn’t sure why suicides among airmen spiked last year, but it does not appear to be related to deployments.
He said the most common factor in suicides on base has been people experiencing difficult transitions, such as divorce or child-custody disputes.
When people are going through such problems, they have a tendency to withdraw and isolate themselves. That appears to be a common factor in suicides.
“We want people to know they are not alone and other people have gone through the same stresses and similar transitions,” Bascom said. “Through their informal support systems, they need to reach out and to not isolate.”
In 2010, suicides among airmen throughout the Air Force hit a 17-year high. The Air Force has ordered “stand down” days for all units to discuss suicide prevention.
The 78th Medical Group had its own stand-down day Thursday.
Non-essential operations were shut down and members broke into small groups to discuss suicide prevention.
The base also emphasizes what it calls “the wingman culture.” It encourages employees to watch out for each other. Once or twice a year, it holds a wingman day in which units shut down and have fun activities intended to promote camaraderie.
Another term the Air Force promotes across its ranks is “resiliency,” which was the primary topic of the stand-down day. Bascom said it encourages people to learn to bounce back when troubles seem overwhelming.
The anti-suicide effort has gotten some notice, and other bases have asked about the efforts here, Bascom said. But he agreed with Dienst that having four suicides in a year is four too many.
“Behind any suicide there is a hurting family and hurting friends,” he said. “We are pleased it has come down, but we will be more pleased when there are none.”
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.