Dear Coast Guard Family: Suicide Prevention | How to Get Help and How to Give Help

Once a month, Coast Guard Compass will feature “Dear Coast Guard Family,” a column for Coast Guard families by Coast Guard spouse Rachel Conley. Rachel is married to her high school sweetheart, Chief Warrant Officer James Conley, and is the mother of three children. Rachel passionately serves as a Coast Guard Ombudsman and advocate of Coast Guard families. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the United States Coast Guard Ombudsman of the Year Award.

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Once a month, Coast Guard Compass will feature “Dear Coast Guard Family,” a column for Coast Guard families by Coast Guard spouse Rachel Conley. Rachel is married to her high school sweetheart, Chief Warrant Officer James Conley, and is the mother of three children. Rachel passionately serves as a Coast Guard Ombudsman and advocate of Coast Guard families. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the United States Coast Guard Ombudsman of the Year Award.

Memories often transport me to that quiet spring evening and the devastating news we received.  I can still hear the phone ringing.  I can feel my breath catch.  The panic.  The heartbreak.  It’s been over twelve years, but not a day goes by I don’t remember.  For my family, our whole world changed when a loved one died by suicide.  I’m not sure which is worse – the pain of what happened or the ache for what never will.  For those left behind, grief and questions can intermingle in ways that are all-consuming and debilitating. 

Life can change in an instant.  No one is immune to the challenges of life or the despair of suicide.  Together, we can #BeThere for each other. 

I reached out to our leadership and experts to discuss how to get help, how to give help, and what the Coast Guard is doing to prevent suicide.

What is the Coast Guard doing to Prevent Suicide?

Each September, the nation recognizes Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, but it’s so much more than one month.  For the U.S. Coast Guard, the mission to save lives never ends – both on the water and within our own community. 

I spoke to Ms. Christiana Montminy, the Coast Guard’s Employee Assistance program manager, to learn more about the efforts being made to prevent suicide.  Here’s what she shared:

  • The Coast Guard offers a variety of resources, including:  chaplains, medical personnel, Employee Assistance Program coordinators (EAPCs), and CG SUPRT.  Use of these support services is highly encouraged.  During fiscal year 2019, CG SUPRT provided over 13,000 consults for care. 
  • In additional to the mandated suicide prevention training, in-depth suicide intervention workshops can be accessed through the servicing Employee Assistance Program coordinator and/or chaplain
    • Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) is a two-day workshop that teaches participants to carry out life-saving interventions for people at risk of suicide.
    • SafeTALK is a half-day workshop that prepares participants to identify people with thoughts of suicide and connect them with life-saving resources. 
  • Commands can request unit briefings with the EAPC and/or CG SUPRT – this can help with the development of communication techniques. 
  • The Coast Guard is regularly meeting with the Defense Health Agency and the Defense Suicide Prevention Office to align and implement suicide prevention efforts. 
  • The Coast Guard utilizes a “Total Force Fitness” approach – this involves integrating fitness of the mind, body, and spirit.  Achieving total fitness is a state in which service members and their families can sustain optimal well-being and performance even under difficult conditions (such as military service).   
  • The President’s National Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End Suicide has encouraged the Employee Assistance Program to strengthen collaboration with the Transition and Relocation Program to increase efforts to prevent veteran suicide. 
  • The Coast Guard has partnered with the Veterans/Military Crisis Line to support service members, veterans, and their families and friends.
  • Efforts are being made to improve access to care – especially in areas where there are limited options. 
  • Coast Guard veterans and their families now have access to Military OneSource for a year following separation from the military.   Military OneSource provides exclusive access to programs, tools, and benefits designed to help ensure veterans and their families are able to thrive in their post-military lives. 
  • All EAPCs were provided the opportunity to attend the 2019 VA/DoD Suicide Prevention Conference (10 of 14 were available to participate).  This conference provided the opportunity for EAPCs to connect, collaborate, and learn more about evidenced based prevention techniques.  
  • The Employee Assistance Program/Suicide Prevention Program is working in collaboration with other Work-Life programs, including the Family Advocacy Program, and the Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) to help better understand risk factors, target prevention efforts, and ensure that available resources are best meeting the needs of the Coast Guard community. 
  • The Coast Guard Employee Assistance Program tracks military suicides.  To the best of their ability, they also track dependent and civilian employee suicides — obtaining information on dependent and civilian employee deaths can be more difficult when the investigation is handled by outside entities.  Ultimately, the Employee Assistance Program actively seeks to gain as much insight as possible with the goal of continuously strengthening prevention efforts and resources. 

Interview with Admiral Karl Schultz

Q:  What would you say to someone who is contemplating suicide?

A:  Besides your own personal family, you are part of the Coast Guard family.  Coast Guard men and women are often seen as “guardians” in our communities, and need to be “guardians” for each other.  If you face challenges in your personal life, in the work place, and even if you are leaving the Coast Guard, there is room for all of us to grow through even the most difficult experiences in our lives.  Based on the human condition, we will all feel pain, shame, guilt, fear, and even despair during our lifetimes. Equally important, being human gives us the ability to feel joy, connectedness, purpose, love and belonging.  Please reach out to a shipmate directly, or to a Coast Guard chaplain or medical officer for help.  You are not alone!

Q:  What would you say to someone who is hesitant to seek help? 

A:  For a Coast Guardsman to recognize that they need help is the first, and often the hardest step to take.  As guardians, there’s a propensity to not acknowledge our own vulnerabilities.  The nature of our missions, as well as the complexities of life and relationships, can expose us to trauma, and/or hurt and pain, yet many military members often feel shame or fear stigma associated with seeking help.  In reality, nothing shows greater strength than seeking the support one needs.  If you are not able, or ready, to reach out to a shipmate, chaplain or medical officer, please consider using the free and confidential Employee Assistance Program (CG SUPRT) by calling 1-855-CG-SUPRT (1-855-247-8778) to speak with a counselor by phone, or to schedule an in-person meeting(s) with a counselor near you.  Other alternatives are the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, and The Lifeline (@800273TALK)  You are not alone!

Message and video from Admiral Charles Ray

If you feel lonely, depressed, or helpless, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.  We can help you.  Click here or call 855-CGSUPRT (247-8778).

In the U.S. Coast Guard we are all lifesavers, but you never know when the next life you save may be one of your own shipmates.  If you don’t know how to help, click here.

View the video here.

The Unique Role of Chaplains

Lieutenant Jonathan Alexander has a way of connecting with people.  I think it’s a mixture of approachability and humor (when appropriate).  As a chaplain, Lt. Alexander offers something unique – 100% confidentiality.  “When service members might be hesitant to bring up thoughts of suicide to a medical provider or shipmate – because they are mandatory reporters – they can talk to a chaplain and know that it’s completely confidential.  That’s the beautiful burden of chaplaincy – we cannot report it.”  This protection allows service members and their loved ones the opportunity to seek help and discuss any topic in a worry-free environment. 

Many people are familiar with the pastoral counseling that chaplains provide – but chaplains also provide relational counseling and can counsel people of all faiths or no faith.  “If someone wants to integrate faith into the counseling conversation, we are more than willing and able to help, but if someone does not come from a religious background or does not want that incorporated, then we don’t talk about religion or spirituality,” said Alexander.  

If you’re unsure where to turn, Alexander encourages you to talk to a chaplain!

How you can #BeThere

Death by suicide can occur for many reasons, but it is often associated with some form of loss – loss of a relationship, community, professional identify, health, goals, or purpose.

Ms. Lillian Cockrill is an Employee Assistance Program Coordinator.  As I spoke to her about preventing suicide, I could hear the emotion in her voice – she cares. 

“Because each person is unique, it’s important to know their ‘normal’ and watch for differences in their behaviors,” she said.

Cockrill’s sentiment is one that Montminy shares. 

“It’s important to notice changes and to be kindly curious,” said Montminy.

All of the experts I spoke to discussed the true importance of connection. 

“It’s looking someone in the eye,” said Montminy. “It’s asking how someone is.  Warmth matters – it can change the course of someone’s day or life.”

If you’re concerned about someone’s safety or well-being, follow these steps:

  • ASK:  Interact in a manner that communicates your concern.  Ask direct questions: “Are you considering suicide?”  “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” 
  • CARE:  Show that you care by remaining calm, judgement-free, and actively listening to their story.   
  • ESCORT:  Do not leave someone at risk alone.  Escort them to the nearest professional:  medical provider/emergency room, Employee Assistance Program coordinator, chaplain, etc. 

Resources to Support

The Coast Guard’s Suicide Prevention Program
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Veterans/Military Crisis Line
CG SUPRT:   CG SUPRT offers a wide range of services including:  counseling, health coaching, money coaching, legal services, education and career counseling, and online tools. 
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS):  The mission of TAPS is to provide comfort and support to all who are grieving the loss of a loved one in military service. 
Give an Hour:  Free counseling for military, veterans, and their families.

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