NEWS | Sept. 22, 2021

Suicide Prevention in the Military, from Taboo to Timely

By Airman 1st Class Matthew Porter 87th Air Base Wing

Suicide prevention is a year-round effort. As September is Suicide Prevention Month, now is a time to reach out to others while also taking the time to look within.

Suicide prevention is a top priority for the Department of Defense. It continues to advance prevention efforts, track and evaluate progress, enhance lethal means safety, and promote resilience while working to eliminate stigma.

For U.S. Air Force Col. Michele Lo Bianco, 305th Air Mobility Wing Operations Group commander, suicide prevention, mental health awareness, and personal wellness have been lifelong pursuits, but she felt as though it was not always a priority for the military.

“The prevailing thought on mental health and military service when I commissioned was to shelve your issues,” said Lo Bianco. “If you were dealing with a difficult situation, personally, professionally, or both, you put that on a shelf and filed it away instead of processing it.”

The Florida native is quick to point out that this method of not dealing with trauma caused by difficult life circumstances is ultimately unsustainable. 

“Eventually the shelf will break--there’s no amount of resiliency that prevents someone from ever having to confront their problems,” said Lo Bianco. “To prevent this from happening it’s essential that we get people connected to the resources that can help them.”

From her time as a company grade officer to now, a future Wing Commander, Lo Bianco has been in the business of taking care of the people that take care of the mission. She admits, however, that this has been a learning process, having come face to face with the reality of what happens when someone’s shelf begins to break.

“As a Lieutenant I remember receiving a call from one of my Airmen who I knew had been struggling, stating she wouldn’t make it into work that day,” said Lo Bianco. “I went to check on her, despite reassurances that she was fine, and found her in a bathtub after an attempt on her life.”

Unsure of what to do in that situation, Lo Bianco rendered immediate aid to the Airman and took her to the hospital where she could receive proper care and counseling.

“Was that handled ideally? Probably not,” said Lo Bianco. “That said, this was a reality that wasn’t spoken about much less trained for at all back then and I reacted.”

Tragedy would strike as a commander where once again Lo Bianco would be called to act on behalf of one of her Airmen.

“I once received a call that one of my Airmen completed suicide and as their commander it became my responsibility to share what had happened with that Airman’s parents,” said Lo Bianco. “It was heartbreaking having to knock on that door and speak with those parents; pictures of their child’s entire life lined the walls of their living room and I realized there would never be anymore added to it.”

As a servant leader deeply affected by these realities, Lo Bianco has made mental health awareness and suicide prevention hallmarks of her conversations with Airmen.

“I tell everyone to know their limits and to get a baseline for their personal wellness in life,” said Lo Bianco. “Surviving one day to the next is not living, you need to do the things that fill your cup every day, and if you don’t know what those things are then you need to find out.”

Lo Bianco shares that as a leader, setting the proper example for this lifestyle is key to the success of others placing the same importance of wellness in their own lives.

“I can’t be an advocate for wellness and not practice these things in my own life,” said Lo Bianco. “Every morning I sit down and have breakfast with my family. I also adhere to a strict workout regimen. Those are the things that fill up my cup.”

Over the course of her career, Lo Bianco began to keep the names of those affected by tragedy, especially suicide, in a box of remembrance with the words “Make it Matter” engraved on top.

“On certain days throughout the year like Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day, I’ll open the box and look through the names of people I’ve placed in it,” said Lo Bianco. “I think about them and their loved ones, I remember them, because they mattered, and I never want to forget that or how precious life is.”

Not wanting to add more names to the box, Lo Bianco is a staunch advocate for seeking help from any of approximately 900 different resources available to servicemembers for mental and physical help.

“Even as a Commander I want Airmen to see me reaching out to these resources when I need them,” said Lo Bianco. “We have to destigmatize the conversation around mental health and stress personal wellness, we need people to understand that they matter.”

If you or someone you know is suicidal or in a state of crisis, seek help immediately. At JB MDL, suicidal individuals may go (or be taken to) the 87th Mental Health Clinic. It is open for emergency walk-ins Monday through Friday, 1:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. After hours, go to the nearest civilian emergency department or call 911.

The JB MDL Mental Health Clinic is located at 3458 Neely Road. To schedule an appointment for non-emergency care, call 609-754-9324. You do not need a referral.

Other resources include:

Military Crisis Line Phone: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1 Text to 838255 For online chat, go to: www.veteranscrisisline.net

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Phone: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) For online chat, go to: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org