AF psychologist: wingman concept saves lives

CHARLESTON AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- I was recently deployed as a psychologist on short notice to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, in May of this year. Since my return to Charleston AFB, I have been enjoying time with my family and the cooler weather.

I have had many people tell me that Al Udeid is a good place to be deployed if you have to go to the Middle East. I would agree with them in many ways, a tour of duty at Al Udeid means great amenities, good food and opportunities to experience local food and culture in downtown Doha. However, given my field of expertise, I have some cautionary information, both anecdotal and statistical.

The Air Force in general, and Charleston specifically, has had more than its share of tragedy in the past year. One of the most tragic and preventable losses involve our Airmen who decided to take their own lives. The Air Force has placed a great deal of emphasis on preventing suicides through education and awareness of the problem in recent years, but suicides continue to occur.

In my experience while deployed, there is no place where the wingman concept is more important. For some, a deployed location means a lighter workload, more free time and better pay. For others, deployment is a stressful environment physically, mentally and emotionally, which can lead to breakdown for folks who would otherwise never need my help.

I noticed that many patients had never sought services before, but felt removed from their normal sources of support and didn't know where else to turn. A higher proportion of my caseload consisted of people who were at high risk for dangerous behavior (i.e. at risk of harm to themselves or others). Frequently, people sought treatment for more than one reason. Of all of the patients who sought treatment, 55 percent of patients reported work problems, 48 percent were coping with marital or relationship problems, 48 percent reported depressive symptoms and 39 percent reported anxiety or stress as a concern. There were other problems for which people sought aid, but these four were, by far, the top concerns.

During my time at Al Udeid, three people attempted suicide. All of these individuals were males who told me that their suicide attempts were a direct result of being notified of impending divorce and/or infidelity in their absence. It is also significant to note that none of the three people who attempted suicide had tried to seek mental health services before they acted. Of all the patients I counseled, there were 28 people considered to be at high risk of harm to themselves. There were 18 high-risk patients during the same four-month period at the Charleston AFB Life Skills clinic, or 36 percent fewer high risk patients than in the deployed location. In the desert, 75 percent of high-risk patients reported experiencing marital or relationship difficulties, which was by far the number one problem. It is also noteworthy to mention that none of 28 high-risk individuals who sought services attempted suicide during the deployment. This statistic is not to suggest that mental health services will always prevent suicides, rather, that professional help can serve as an aid to prevent horrible outcomes for people in distress.

From my observations of people during deployment, it would seem that personality traits, personal difficulties and troubles at home tend to become magnified in such an environment. The deployed environment can be hot, dangerous or uncomfortable. People are removed from their regular sources of social support, coworkers may be more irritable and short tempered and there can be a sense of isolation from the happenings stateside. For deployed Airmen struggling with romantic relationships stateside, there is limited ability to call home, coupled with a strong desire for face-to-face contact, which seems to lead to a sense of helplessness and lack of personal control (e.g. you can't exactly hop on a plane home for the weekend to sort things out with your spouse). Another complicating factor is the tendency for e-mails to lead to misinterpretations and miscommunications in an already tense situation. In short, relationship problems at home can be a trigger for big trouble in the desert.
Since my return stateside, there has been talk that many of us are likely to deploy in coming months. My suggestion, at home and in a deployed setting, is for all of us to be good wingmen.

Continue to be aware of indicators of emotional suffering and be a good listening ear to people in need. Take the time to ask how others are doing, try to listen to them without judging them and help them get professional care if the problems are serious. You can always take a person in turmoil to the emergency room, to a chaplain, first shirt or life skills representative. Given my recent observation of an apparent link between serious relationship difficulties and suicidal behavior in a deployed location, please take extra care to support and monitor people who indicate that they are going through a breakup. Please also attend to indicators of suicide as mentioned in your required suicide prevention briefings. Pay attention to your wingman; you could save a life.

In terms of prevention, I would suggest that people address relationship problems prior to deployment. It is unlikely that marital or relationship problems that exist prior to deployment will magically improve after a significant period of separation. To get this counseling, the following options are available: The Family Advocacy Program offers "Strength-Based Treatment" for brief marital counseling. For more information, call 963-6972. Another option is Military One Source where you can obtain marital counseling in your area by calling 800-342-9647. Marital counseling services are also available through the Life Skills Support Center at 963-6852.