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The Journey: Response to Commentary

Ms. Charlene White, director of psychological health at the 137th Special Operations Wing, poses for a portrait taken at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base in Oklahoma City, Sep. 19, 2019.

Ms. Charlene White, director of psychological health at the 137th Special Operations Wing, poses for a portrait taken at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base in Oklahoma City, Sep. 19, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Andrew LaMoreaux)

WILL ROGERS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Okla. --

It is true that every Airman has a story, yet most are too afraid to share it with strangers, mental health professionals, friends, family or even those closest to them. They do this for many reasons: possible rejection, judgment, shame, loss of career, or fear of the unknown. The stigma associated with seeking mental health is much greater than their desire to get help — especially within the military. Therefore, they continue to suffer in silence, day after day, with emotional pain, repeating the cycle of unhealthy patterns and toxic behaviors that could eventually lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Suicide doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have. It doesn’t matter how loved you are.

The current Air Force suicide rate is at an alarming high, despite efforts to tackle the problem. As former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson stated, “We need an Air Force culture where it is more common to seek help than to try to go at it alone.” In my opinion, not only does the culture need to shift to encourage more help-seeking, but suicide prevention can’t be seen solely a mental health professional’s problem. Every single one of us can save a life. We all possess the ability to reach out, to listen, to empathize, and to be present for those we love and strangers in need. Building trust and connectedness are two ways to encourage help-seeking and break down barriers. Human connection is a powerful thing. When it seems there is no one who understands, a hand reaching out is sometimes the one thing that begins the journey towards seeking help. Some suggestions for building trust and connectedness are:

1. Walk to an individual’s office to make a request versus sending an email. In doing so, it opens the door for communication and allows you to lay eyes on the person.

2. Share your own personal stories of struggle and adversity.

3. Dispel the myth that seeking help will have a negative career-impact.

4. Encourage seeking help early.

5. Genuinely make mental health a part of regular discussions, meetings and roll calls.

I personally have seen how small steps can save lives and change a culture. A simple “hello” or a warm smile can change the entire atmosphere at home or in the office.

As you can see from Staff. Sgt. Ericka Costin’s personal journey, she chose to stop living behind her facade and her false reality that she “would never let it get that far.” She chose to no longer perpetuate the stigma associated with seeking mental health. She made the courageous decision to turn right on that unsteady road instead of left. She trusted the process and the professionals to guide her to the new paved road of recovery and emotional healing. It is apparent her road to recovery wasn’t easy; it required work, commitment, patience and facing some ugly truths. As she traveled along that road, she began to slowly chisel away at the cracks and chips that led her down a path of self-medicating, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Today, Erika will tell you she had to go down the hill and through the valley to find freedom and peace within herself. She now has healthy tools to manage the bumps in the road. She has a community of support when she finds herself struggling or just having a bad day. She has also been a support to her peers.

According to Mental Health America, evidenced-based research shows that mental health peer support decreases hospital admissions, lowers overall cost of services, improves social functioning, improves family relationships, shortens hospital stays and improves overall quality of life. Sharing your journey not only helps you heal; it provides a sense of empowerment and confidence to your peers.

Your road, like Erika’s, does not have to end in hopelessness or despair.

There is help.

There is hope.

You are not alone.

There is joy in the journey.