Navy Suicide Prevention: It’s an All-Hands Effort

By Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Mikelle D. Smith Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON – Balancing military and personal life involves sacrifices. At times, this balancing act can cause sailors to become extremely overwhelmed and even depressed.

Some sailors might seek guidance from shipmates while others can let feelings fester. Unresolved emotions can become unbearable and, like a pot of boiling water, the sailor overflows. Seeing no way out, 46 sailors took their lives last year.

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death in the Navy, accounting for 13 percent of fatalities in 2009, officials said. Any loss of a sailor’s life can be devastating for a family and command. It’s important that sailors are familiar with the signs and symptoms of suicide so identifying a shipmate contemplating suicide is easier.

The Navy recognizes the seriousness of suicide and has developed additional training methods to help sailors acknowledge they are front line supporters of suicide prevention efforts. Sailors, from pay grades E-1 to O-10, are key players in the suicide prevention process, something that begins with the chain of command, with coworkers and with friends of the sailor experiencing negative thoughts.

“One big thing that people neglect about suicide is the power of little things,” said Capt. Paul S. Hammer, director of the Naval Center for Combat and Operational Stress Control. “So often we see that many people were dissuaded from hurting themselves by someone who made a very minor gesture that turned out to be huge.”

The NCCOSC developed a suicide prevention kit called Front Line Supervisor Training that was mostly written by Tom Pickel, a retired Navy corpsman and neuropsychiatry specialist. The kit is geared toward sailors’ awareness of behavior leading to suicide through interactive situational training.

“Our overall goal is to create a positive environment where individuals feel comfortable asking for help and where positive leadership and availability of resources are understood,” Pickel said.

Two hundred upper echelon and installation suicide prevention coordinators recently received front-line supervisor training by program creators that included Lt. Cmdr. Bonnie Chavez, a behavioral health program manager.

“The Navy suicide prevention program builds on sailor and leader caring, by supporting command-level efforts with policy, information and tools,” Chavez said. “Sailors and leaders genuinely care and have shown it in the way they vigorously engage in focus groups, put forth tremendous creativity to develop posters and enthusiastically embrace new hands-on training materials.”

Front-line supervisor training incorporates videos and music, pocket-sized reference cards, information for plan-of-the-day messages and posters ideas and resources created to raise sailors’ awareness of suicide-prevention tactics.

According to Hammer, the first step in suicide prevention is identifying subtle warning signs, some of which may include but are not restricted to: withdrawal from family and friends, abuse of drugs or alcohol, poor performance at work and engaging in reckless acts by a usually cautious person. Noticing a trend of abnormalities in a shipmate can help sailors recognize subtle changes in that individual’s behavior. Sailors then can take necessary steps to help shipmates target the root of negative feelings before suicide thoughts are reached.

The suicide prevention kit entered the fleet in April and it includes the new video, “A Message from Suicide,” along with interactive, peer-to-peer facilitated training.

“What’s different is we take the audience through a case study,” Hammer explained. “We turn it into a discussion that the audience can be involved in. This gives them the ability to see from start to finish what really goes on in the mind of a person dealing with suicidal thoughts. We ultimately are preparing them to handle encounters and giving effective ways to be firsthand responders.”

According to Chavez, the suicide prevention kit advises sailors who come face-to-face with someone in a suicidal situation to visualize the acronym ACT: Ask, Care and Treat.

Ask involves recognizing sailors with problems and staying engaged. Too often, sailors are overly involved with their own day-to-day happenings. Recognizing a shipmate dealing with stress that can lead to visions of suicide is important. Start off with a simple question, “What’s bothering you?” Encourage troubled sailors to talk about what they are feeling and ask if they are thinking of taking their life. Most importantly, don’t judge.

Care involves listening thoroughly. Having a 20-minute conversation or accepting an early-morning phone call can save the life of a sailor contemplating suicide. Let them know there is hope and they’re not alone by giving them your undivided attention and having an open heart.

Treat means taking the sailor to get help. Do not leave them alone until professional help has arrived. Continue offering support for that shipmate through treatment and after. Something as simple as inviting the sailors over for dinner on Sunday nights can show them that their presence is appreciated. Over time, this simple act can encourage them to seek help in dealing with suicidal thoughts.

In three words: be a friend.

Some sailors may feel overwhelmed with the thought of encountering a shipmate on the verge of causing self-harm. If they believe they are unable to provide adequate assistance, they should contact someone who can.

“For most sailors, suicide prevention is more than a general military training topic,” Chavez said. “Nearly half of sailors in the Navy have personally known someone in their lives who was lost to suicide. Suicide prevention is not about numbers. Every person lost is taken very seriously and we are focusing our efforts on providing tools to save lives.”

The Navy provides sailors with a variety of options to combat suicidal thoughts such as command chaplains, Fleet and Family Service Centers and command medical facilities available to assist and direct in times of need.

Suicide intervention services like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also are available to sailors. Obtain more information and resources at or the Operational Stress Control continuum at