In 730 days of command, it was the longest day.

People sometimes missed morning work call, but this was different. For much of the previous year, he’d suffered from a deep depression and crippling anxiety, and we’d worked diligently to get him the help he needed. Then one day – for reasons we’d never fully understand – he decided he was done fighting. We found him later that day.

The hours that day were lost in a fog. Family notification. Grief counseling. The inevitable questions that follow in the wake of a suicide. Had we done enough? Could we have done more? Did we miss something – a sign, an indicator, anything? What could we have done differently? But there were no answers.

Nearly thirty years later, I still think about that day. I eventually stopped asking those questions, but the memories never faded. They are burned into my consciousness. I see the images of that day as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.

UNDERSTANDING SUICIDE

Every suicide is a tragedy. When someone takes their own life, it affects everyone directly connected to them, and many more who are not. It touches us deeply, on a level that few events in life can reach. There are any number of factors that can lead to suicide – some that are seen and many more that are not – and we often view its causes as a mystery. But it’s often not.

A recent Psychology Today article noted aptly that “suicide often stems from a deep feeling of hopelessness” or worthlessness that evolves from an inability to cope with the challenges of life. Suicide is seen as the only solution, the only way to escape the crushing weight of the burdens of life. While depression is a major risk factor in suicides, other factors can play just as significant a role. Mental health disorders, a family history of suicide, substance abuse and impulsivity, chronic pain or illness, traumatic stress, loss or a fear of loss, and prior suicide attempts can all contribute to the same feelings of hopelessness. When combined, the risks increase, often exponentially.

No one is immune to suicidal feelings. Suicide rates vary by race, ethnicity, and even by geographic location, but suicidal ideations can affect anyone at any time, regardless of age or gender. In the United States, someone takes their own life every 11 minutes. Globally, nearly 800,000 people die from suicide every year. The suicide rate for men is twice that of women; among veterans, that rate doubles again.

PREVENTING SUICIDE

Suicide presents a unique leadership challenge. It’s a consistent presence that most leaders inevitably contend with at some point, directly or indirectly. As a result, leaders play an important role in preventing suicide, or at least limiting the impact or presence of risk factors. That’s significant, because someone doesn’t have to take their own life for the conditions to be present that might lead them to do so. And as leaders, we bear responsibility for looking the other way when those conditions exist.

First, we have to recognize the risk factors. Some of those are more obvious than others; for those that are less obvious, it’s imperative we lead with empathy and compassion. Lean into emotional intelligence. Second, know the warning signs. Active listening is a critical leadership skill, even more so with people who may be at risk of self-harm. Again, emotional intelligence is an absolute necessity. The signs may be subtle, communicated nonverbally. Third, create safe spaces where people can discuss their feelings with privacy and discretion. Trust is essential, and when someone knows their leadership genuinely cares about their well-being, they’re more likely to reach out for help. Fourth, destigmatize mental health. It’s easy to say that we prioritize the mental health of our people, but actions speak louder than words. Encourage people to seek help when they need it and give them the space and respect to do so without feeling isolated.

Fifth, we must address social dynamics and workplace factors that can affect mental health. Poor work conditions, harassment or bullying, and social isolation can all be contributing factors. Maybe someone isn’t selected for promotion or suffers a sudden loss in income. A marriage or relationship might be in crisis. A loved one or close friend dies unexpectedly. All of these can push someone toward feelings of hopelessness, where they see themselves as a burden to others.

Even then, we can’t always prevent someone from taking their own life. In the aftermath of a suicide, lead with compassion and transparency. Respond swiftly, be available to those in need, and remain flexible. Provide the necessary resources to those affected. Give people the time to process their grief. And don’t make the situation worse by burying your head in the sand of denial. Be the leader people need you to be.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, connect with the national suicide prevention lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text 838255. The lifeline can also be reached in most areas by dialing 988 and will be available across the United States on July 16, 2022. There are also additional resources available for veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.