April 17, 2016 –
The shotgun blast reverberates through the phone receiver. Breathless seconds pass before an eerily calm voice cuts through the ringing ear pressed against the other line.
“I just fired a round into the ceiling,” says the voice in a grave, matter-of-fact tone. “You have five minutes to tell me why the next one shouldn’t go through my skull.”
This harrowing crisis is one of dozens of roleplaying scenarios that 27 students assigned to the 143rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) encountered during an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) and Ask, Care, Escort – Suicide Intervention (ACE-SI) workshop conducted April 15-17, 2016, in Orlando, Fla.
“ASIST gives students the fundamental tools, knowledge and resources to help save the life an individual contemplating suicide,” said Gerald Felder, suicide program manager, 143rd ESC. “This course teaches students how to identify people expressing suicidal thoughts and behaviors and take a proactive approach in providing immediate and compassionate care for them through hands-on training.”
Created by LivingWorks Education, a social enterprise dedicated to saving lives through the creation, development and delivery of innovative training experiences, ASIST has trained more than 1 million people throughout the world on how to apply scientifically tested tools and techniques to reduce the risks associated with suicide. The U.S. Army partnered with LivingWorks in 2009 to integrate ASIST training in the Army’s suicide prevention campaign.
“[ASIST] is more than just a series of dry presentations that explain why people shouldn’t kill themselves,” said Army Spc. Grace Lee, an ASIST student serving as a transportation management coordinator for the 520th Movement Control Team in Orlando. “It breaks the ‘death by PowerPoint’ mold by creating a caring and comfortable environment that encourages students to share their ideas and personal experiences … The ASIST instructors encourage us to address one another on a first name basis, [and] I feel this practice helps students speak freely among themselves by reducing the tensions associated with rank and status.”
“The foundational framework of ASIST assumes that anyone can save a life,” added Felder, a native of Birmingham, Ala. “The program’s proactive approach gives students the confidence to take action with the understanding that they should strive for proficiency rather than perfection.
ASIST emphasizes this distinction to remind students that their training is equivalent to applying first aid to a wounded comrade, and that they should reach out to their chaplain, behavioral health specialist, chain-of-command or other experts with the same skill set and resources to provide long-term care.
The workshop’s interactive audio-visual presentations, small group discussions and roleplaying scenarios culminate into a versatile program that provides practical training for Army Reserve Soldiers beyond their military obligations.
“This is the second time I’ve taken this course,” said Lee, a Honolulu, Hawaii, native currently working as a nurse for a Florida Hospital women’s care clinic. “Shortly after I received my ASIST training certification, I applied my newfound skills and knowledge to help my patients …
Taking this course again reinforces what I learned, especially on how to identify the subtle signs of suicide and what questions to ask when you suspect someone is thinking about taking his or her own life.”
Suicides in the Army ranks rose sharply from 45 in 2001 to 165 in 2012. Three years later, this all-time high dropped by nearly 20 percent. Felder partially attributes this decrease to the surge of Soldiers and Department of the Army Civilians who have participated in an ASIST workshop. He punctuates this correlation with recent suicide statistics within his command.
“The 143rd ESC sadly lost eight Soldiers to suicide last year,” said Felder. “Since Jan.1, 2016, only one Soldier in this command has committed suicide. Although one life lost to suicide is too many, the fact that the command reported nine suicidal threats that were averted through intervention tells me that the Soldiers, civilians and family members of this command are communicating with one another and using the plethora of suicide prevention resources available to them to include the training many have received through the ASIST program.”
Although an analysis of the specific contributions of ASIST to the Army’s declining suicide rate may prove difficult to measure, its personable approach and collaborative environment have given thousands of Soldiers the confidence to uphold the Army values founded on the basic yet essential moral principle that all life is precious.
“I lost my brother and nearly lost my husband to suicide,” said Lee. “If I had ASIST training during those dark days, I may have spared my family and me from immense pain and hardship. People tend to forget that suicide takes a heavy toll on the living as well … I highly encourage my fellow Soldiers to enroll in ASIST training immediately and actively participate in all the activities with an open mind.”