Graduates celebrate completion of the April 4 and 5 ASIST training at Fort Harrison Army Base. PHOTO COURTESY: CHERRI SCHMAUS

Suicide Series Part Four

The military grind for mental health

My own struggle was revealed in the first part of this series. I lost someone. He was brilliant and kind, gregarious and handsome. That loss gutted me in every possible way. As he started his military career a Marine, I joined Team Rubicon in memoriam of him. Team Rubicon is a military led volunteer organization which helps with disaster relief efforts all over the world. The idea is to give veterans a sense of purpose which may be lost when leaving military service. 

Clay Hunt, one of the founders of Team Rubicon and a Marine Veteran died from PTSD/suicide. So, in 2012 the organization, believing “We Can Combat Suicide as a Community” began offering Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) to volunteers. ASIST is one of many suicide intervention training programs; however, the U.S. military adopted ASIST as their chosen program because of its effectiveness. I signed-up and attended a two-day course held at Fort Harrison Army Base outside of Helena as one of two Team Rubicon members present. 

The majority of attendees – around 30 people – were military. Between the four instructors, two being civilian contractors (Cherri Shmaus and Mark McGinley) and two active duty military, (Bill Ballinger and Julie Vacura) there was over 80 years of military experience between them. 

“There will be no test in this class,” Alcohol and Drug Prevention Coordinator and retired Lt. Colonel McGinley said. “Your test will probably come within a month of receiving this training – when you are back out in your communities.” 

There was a gulp and sharp intake of air from nearly every person in the room. Many of us had been there before: 80 percent of attendees lost either a close friend or family member to suicide. It was a cocoon of camaraderie, really. We were all there so that it wouldn’t happen on our watch again. Or, at least, we would try to keep friends/loved ones/acquaintances “safe for now” and allow an opportunity for help and healing. We basically learned emotional/psychological triage. 

The first day was full of introductions, lecture, discussion and personal stories. Sharing was not required but encouraged. The next day was more lecture and discussion and then application of what we learned: simulations of suicide interventions. The process was awkward, uncomfortable – and necessary. 

The majority of us initially felt fundamentally unprepared to help anyone going through crisis. By the second day, we left the class with more tools in the toolbox and a different way of listening to and interacting with people considering suicide. 

The prevailing sentiment from instructors and military personnel was not if we would need to use the suicide intervention skills learned, or if we would find ourselves having dangerous thoughts when life difficulties compounded – but when. 

“Anyone can have a bad day and have suicide ideation – truthfully – and then two weeks later be fine,” CPT Kaleigh Koeppen, Deputy State Surgeon of the Montana Army National Guard said to those in attendance of ASIST. There is a quiet but consistent effort from a core group of military members to encourage an open and honest discussion of mental health. 

McGinley said what often comes out of the class is a willingness to talk – to have the hard conversation. It led to him creating a safety plan with his son after the suicide death of one of his son’s friends from Helena High School. Those dark days and dark thoughts will someday come, because this is life, he explained. When that happens, his son agreed to call three people to let someone try to help him: his mother, his sister and his father. 

“We can build a safety plan even when we’re not in crisis in the moment,” he said. 

Cherri Schmaus, Alcohol and Drug Control Officer and Master ASIST Trainer said that ASIST is cathartic for many in attendance. 

“This may be the first time some people have shared their own personal story about suicide. It just feels so good to be able to talk about it. That starts the healing process. Just being able to talk frankly in front of people and to know that your story is going to benefit somebody,” she said. 

McGinley said it’s an important topic and it’s important to talk about it. 

“You’re halfway home if you can talk about it,” he said. 

It was upon returning home, after leaving Fort Harrison and my training buddies, that the realization fully hit me: I did everything wrong – for him. I did everything wrong. It is a heartbreaking and humbling thing to admit. I suffered through a storm of regret. It was difficult. Writing this – admitting that my recent education proved my overwhelming shortcomings with my first suicide intervention – well, it hurts.

I admitted as much in a later conversation with Schmaus and McGinley. 

“If you missed it and then there’s a death, you can’t go back over it. You can’t beat yourself up… Let it go. You can’t change it – learn from it,” McGinley said. 

Mutual struggle 

There has been much discussion in the realm of sociological research on the impact of industrialization on mental health. Logically, as countries climb out of third-world status; as they leave the fields and enter offices and are capable of putting steady food on the tables for their families, they should be happier as a populace. That logic contradicts evidence. 

One theory explored by psychiatrist Gerald Klerman and psychologist Myrna Weissman is that desk jobs foster alienation, whereas time in the fields, embraced in a mutual struggle and goal, creates a sense of community. 

“As South Korea has become more industrialized, the country has followed the same pattern that Klerman and Weissman observed earlier in industrialized Western countries. In country after country, when a society becomes industrialized, depression and suicide rates shoot up. Something about the process of industrialization is making people very unhappy,” Ori and Ram Brafman wrote in their book, “Click: The Forces Behind How We Fully Engage with People, Work and Everything We Do”. 

Could this also be part of the problem with military veterans? They come from barracks and close quarters, embracing mutual struggle and survival. Upon returning to the states, they split-up across the country and feelings of alienation surface. Secret military Facebook groups are created, a buddy system enforced – on the lookout for military brothers/sisters “going dark” or cutting off contact due to depression. Some veterans scoff at what they view as weak efforts from the Veteran’s Administration to confront the issue. The recent discovery by the Government Accountability Office – which published in its report that the Veteran’s Administration spent only $57,000 of the $6.8 million allocated for suicide prevention for fiscal year 2018 – does little to dispel that belief. Beyond that, it still seems a struggle for the military to make service members aware of options available and encourage a willingness to use resources when they are known. 

Anyone interested in ASIST training should please email

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