Equipping wingmen with crisis response planning

  • Published
  • By Eric M. White
  • 910th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

For years, Airmen have been trained on the ACE model for suicide prevention: Ask, Care, Escort. The model encourages trainees to question a wingman who is exhibiting behavior that could indicate suicidal thoughts, to demonstrate care for wingmen in crisis by providing assistance and to escort a wingman to a care provider who can provide greater assistance.

The model has proven credence when observable behavior concerns point to an Airman’s need for help, but Airmen at the 910th Airlift Wing have expressed frustration that they aren’t always with their wingmen when a crisis hits, and when they are, the signs aren’t always obvious. The helping agencies at Youngstown Air Reserve Station heard these frustrations and took matters into their own hands, kicking off mental health awareness month by welcoming Dr. Craig Bryan to facilitate a daylong workshop at Youngstown Air Reserve Station on May 3 attended by a group of the 910th Airlift Wing’s senior leaders, first sergeants, firefighters, security forces members and helping agency representatives.

Bryan is a board-certified clinical psychologist with a long list of positions at The Ohio State University including division of recovery and resilience director; stress, trauma and resilience professor of psychiatry and behavioral health; trauma program director; and suicide prevention program.

But he is also a U.S. military veteran at the forefront of mental health research for service members. That’s how Terri Ann Naughton, the 910th Airlift Wing’s director of psychological health, became familiar with Bryan’s work.

“Dr. Bryan’s work has been guiding my professional decision-making for almost 20 years,” said Naughton. “His work with brief cognitive behavioral therapy for suicide prevention and crisis prevention planning is saving lives. I hoped that our Airmen would learn the crisis prevention planning skillset with the result of an even more supportive and healthy wingman culture at YARS.”

The training Bryan brought to the 910th Airlift Wing included a foundation of data pointing to an evidence-based, easy-to-implement and statistically effective strategy for suicide prevention.

Master Sgt. Zachary Lindquist, the 910th’s physical security program manager and selectee for the unit’s new resilience integration first sergeant position, attended the workshop. He said the training offered more than just the crisis response plan method.

“It was very focused on how we say things, and in what caring way we can say things if someone is going through a crisis,” said Lindquist. “I can think of several instances that have come to my attention where I’ve had to work with senior leaders and the helping agencies to take a very careful approach to see how we can move forward with an individual, and I think the process could have been smoother with this index card approach.”

Bryan taught the attendees to guide wingmen in a discussion leading them to write out a short crisis response plan. His research suggests that the plans are most often effectively used when hand-written by the person who will use the plan, so he encourages using the small index cards that Lindquist referenced.

Warning Signs

The first section of the plan is a list of personal warning signs that a crisis might be brewing. Perhaps the person gets very frustrated or has physical ticks like pacing or wanting to hit things. These warning signs are listed on the card, serving as an indication that it’s time to implement some of the plan’s steps.

Reason/s to Live

Another section lists out the individual’s reason/s to live. These often include family or friends, hobbies or humanitarian work, and place a visual reminder on the plan’s importance in a central place.

Coping Strategies

The next section includes the first action steps of the crisis prevention plan. Here, the individual writes down effective personal strategies for managing stress. Perhaps the person knows that a long hike, woodworking, a game night with friends, a good book, inspirational music or breathing exercises has helped their stress level in the past. These are listed out so that the person can readily identify and pursue effective methods to mitigate a stress or anxiety crisis.

Social Support

In light of the possibility that these restorative activities don’t do enough to help, the next section is designed to provide easy access to help. Here, the person lists social support contacts so that they can readily connect with people who will provide care and assistance when needed or perhaps offer a listening ear, as such dialogue can often help.

Emergency Support

The final section of the card features a list of emergency contacts and responses in case the crisis gets to the point where urgent help is needed.

Countering any skepticism, even in the face of ample supporting evidence, that such a simple method can reduce the number of suicide attempts, Bryan relayed stories of clients who have implemented the strategy with good results. He explained that people in crisis often experience a bit of tunnel vision where thoughts aren’t processing well. That’s why the simple instructions on the card provide an easy roadmap. One client, after their immediate crisis had passed, for example, said the only thing they knew to do was to pull out their crisis response plan and start following the steps. An experience that could have spiraled into something much more serious was prevented by the strategies the individual had listed and followed when the time of need came. Many research participants followed the steps they’d written on the card naturally, without consulting the written material.

The workshop comes alongside the ACE method and other training that the 910th Airlift Wing’s helping agencies have brought to the installation, like mental health first aid and emotional intelligence, as another valuable tool in the toolbox of Airmen who want to be prepared to help a wingman in need.

“Our Airmen are the very best in the Air Force Reserve Command, and they deserve the very best we can offer,” said Naughton.