by PA3 Alexandria Preston
Would you recognize the signs if someone was in a suicidal state of mind? How would you react if someone told you, “I want to kill myself?” What steps would you take to get them to safety and to the professional help they need?
Thanks to the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshop, Petty Officer 3rd Class Cole Perkins, an avionics electrical technician from Aviation Training Center Mobile, knew what to do when faced with the challenge of helping talk someone back from the edge of tragedy.
The ASIST workshop prepares people to identify people in danger of harming themselves to talk about suicide, and connect them to suicide first-aid resources. Most people with thoughts of suicide, either directly or indirectly, invite help to stay safe. Alert people know how to identify and work with these opportunities to protect life. The training is interactive and utilizes small group discussions as well as skills-building practice sessions and powerful videos on suicide intervention to familiarize attendees with communication techniques they can use in an emergency. The workshop empowers people to feel more comfortable, confident and competent in helping to prevent the immediate risk of suicide.
Perkins, a 25-year-old from Summerville, South Carolina, has been in the Coast Guard for three years. He enlisted because he wanted to join a life-saving service and make a difference.
“I had recently quit working at my church, and I wanted to help people,” Perkins said. “I’m a military brat. My mom was a Navy Reservist, my dad was Army National Guard, but I didn’t want to fight people. I wanted to help.”
So, when Perkins saw a message offering the ASIST workshop to Coast Guard members, he didn’t hesitate to volunteer.
“I wanted to do the ASIST workshop because I’ve interacted with a few friends who had intentions of suicide. I was put in the position where I was the only one they had to talk to when they were in that mental state, and I was way out of my league,” said Perkins. “I wanted to make sure I was never in that position again. Suicide seems to be more common recently so I knew I’d be faced with it again, and I was – a lot sooner than expected.”
On September 16, 2019, Perkins was scheduled to go on a HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft training flight, but the mission that day took an unexpected turn.
The aircrew was tasked with locating a mariner who, after leaving a suicide note for his wife, headed offshore in his fishing vessel nearly six hours earlier.
As the aircrew launched for the case, Perkins reviewed the ASIST quick reference tool that he kept in his wallet, and volunteered to talk to the mariner when he was found.
A few hours into the search the aircrew located a vessel matching the description of the distressed man’s fishing boat, and saw him aboard. His radio signal was weak, but the aircrew was able to establish communications by flying in close proximity.
“The whole time we were looking for him I wasn’t sure if we were going to find him,” said Perkins. “There was just so much time that passed since he left the dock. So, when we found him and I heard him over the radio, it kind of felt like someone just walked up behind me and just threw a really, really heavy sandbag on my shoulders. Everything got somber.”
The aircrew continued to fly close to the vessel as Perkins started talking to him over the radio. Initially the man wanted nothing to do with the assistance, but once Perkins was able to make a personal connection with him, things changed.
“Numerous times he said something along the lines of, ‘Sir, I mean no disrespect, but I don’t want to talk to you. You guys can go. I’m fine.’ He didn’t want to move his boat to shore, but as we talked he slowly started opening up. I found out some stuff about him, and I was able to make some to connections to life, about his wife and his dog, debatably the two most important things in his life. I was able to get him to agree to start slowly heading back to shore. Initially he put his boat in idle, but as the rapport was building he would slowly increase his speed. By then it was nightfall, and he repeatedly would say things like, ‘I’m sure you guys have better things to do. You can go.’ So, there was a lot of reassuring. He never came out and said exactly why he decided to do this, but I pieced it together. Stuff just kind of compiled, but like sucking venom out of a wound, the more he finally opened up the better it got.”
As the man made it closer to shore, watchstanders from Coast Guard Sector Mobile were able to launch a small boat rescue crew to standby in the area in the event their assistance was needed. The watchstanders also coordinated with local law enforcement to have an officer waiting on-shore to provide further support and assistance to the mariner.
It took nearly six hours from the time the aircrew launched to when the distressed man made it back to shore. There was relief among the aircrew when Perkins signed off on the radio, and the man approached the dock and the awaiting law enforcement officer.
“When I signed off I was exhausted, but it felt great to have a little bit of that weight pulled back off my shoulders,” said Perkins.
The training Perkins received from the workshop was invaluable. It can be used inside and outside of a work environment to help reduce the risk of suicide.
“I’ve used ASIST before this event on a personal level that I didn’t anticipate, but because of that training I knew where to take the conversation,” said Perkins. “I knew what to look for, how to respond and then how to help. If I hadn’t gotten that training I wouldn’t have been able to do it. So if I just do my four years and get out, it’s something I can take with me and offer to friends and family.”
If you would like to learn more about the opportunity to participate in programs like the ASIST workshop, talk to your local chaplain.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, help is available. The below resources are available for you to reach out to.
- Coast Guard Suicide Prevention Program: This link explains the program and offers links to several CG-specific resources.
- CG Support: Call (855) CG SUPRT (247-8778) or go online for assistance finding mental health support.
- The Health, Safety & Work-Life App: Contains a variety of support contacts specific for each district. It can be downloaded in iPhone and Android versions.
- Military Crisis Line: To get help, call 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1), text to 838255, or chat online.
- Tricare: Getting mental health care: This site explains the process by which you can get Tricare-covered mental health care.
- Defense Suicide Prevention Office: Although this is a Department of Defense program, it contains many resources and articles available to Coast Guard families.
- Suicide risk factors among military service members.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: This site provides immediate support online, through chats, or by phone at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).