FORT LEE, Va. -- Categorizing suicide as an anomaly among the weak-minded is a hindrance to awareness and prevention, according to Vicki Lynn Duffy, director of Embedded Preventive Behavioral Health Capability and Suicide Prevention at Marine Corps Base, Quantico.
“We need to recognize it’s a state of mind that’s not always connected to mental illness,” she emphasized during her remarks at the Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month kickoff breakfast Aug. 30 in the Memorial Chapel Family Life Center. “With that realization, we have to be comfortable with knowing it can happen to anyone; that suicidal ideations are unavoidable; and they’re not always predictable, which should dramatically change the conversation.”
Duffy’s talk preceded a proclamation signing in which Brig. Gen. Douglas McBride Jr., CASCOM and Fort Lee interim commanding general, Col. Hollie Martin, garrison commander, and other senior leaders endorsed a pledge to “Be There” when a fellow Team Lee member needs support. Throughout the coming month, a series of activities are planned across the installation to raise awareness of suicide prevention measures and assistance programs. The schedule of activities can be found at lee.army.mil under the “Upcoming Events” listing.
During her thought-provoking presentation at the observance, Duffy raised several points about her suicide research and findings. The audience was jokingly encouraged to “listen fast” in the introduction by Garrison Chaplain Col. Terry Romine, as a “weeks’ worth of classroom material” was about to be thrown at them.
“My perspective is from a totally different place,” Duffy explained at the beginning of her talk. “I’m not a chaplain, I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not a social worker. I am a scientist.”
Her entry into the program in 2009 came with the understanding that she would study human behavior, and she was provided investigation reports detailing the lives of suicide victims and the scenes of their self-inflicted deaths.
“I felt every emotion,” she recalled. “I was angry, sad, confused and there were many moments when I was outright sick to my stomach because I knew what was coming. Everything needed to know that person would commit suicide was right there in front of me. Unfortunately, none of the people around those Soldiers had all of the evidence, and what they did know wasn’t clear to them.”
Recognizing the brain’s ability to “hijack” various body functions is key to understanding where most suicidal ideations begin, Duffy elaborated at a different point in her presentation. The examples she cited include someone skipping meals all day and frantically carb-loading on junk food as soon as they get home, or people passing out at the sight of blood.
“Our mind goes into fight, flight or freeze mode,” she said. “We have activated our sympathetic nervous system. When we don’t eat, the body thinks it’s dying because it’s not getting fuel or calories. Then the reasoning of the frontal cortex kicks in and demands a quick energy carb-load as a matter of survival. When it gets what it wants, it dumps really great chemicals in our brain and we feel so much better.”
What happens, though, if a crisis happens and the reasoning part of the brain is slow to respond? It’s a fact of life the frontal cortex is not fully developed until age 25, Duffy pointed out during the latter portion of her remarks. Some may see a threat and not have the experience of knowing how to overcome it or recognize it’s a short-term situation that is survivable.
“At that point, the person is in this hijacked state with little or no help from the part of their brain that does higher-level thinking and problem solving; the part that connects short-term to long term memory, which allows them to put things into perspective,” she said. “Thus, when you encounter someone who is suicidal, more times than not what’s happening with them seems illogical and out of perspective. … That’s you, because everything is making sense to them. They are under hijacking operation and not functioning correctly.”
At various points in her talk, Duffy cited statistics like the 75-to-80 percent of people who die by suicide never telling anybody they’re suicidal because they don’t know they’re in that state of mind. In a preponderance of cases, she also observed, the time between perceiving death as the best way to stop the pain and the actual attempt to end one’s life is within 24-48 hours.
“Most of us have developed healthy ways to get ourselves out of this state,” Duffy said. “We go for a run, get some sleep, call a friend … any endorphin-raising event. Over time, we establish mental pathways (experiences) that remind us of the last time we overcame an obstacle or what the bigger, more important purpose is beyond the problem we’re experiencing. We recognize problems are usually short-term and can be overcome.”
To reduce suicidal ideation, it’s important to practice hope often, Duffy advised. Set and help others create credible life goals that are achievable. Leaders and mentors can share what success feels and looks like, and they can recognize highly emotional situations – the loss of a family member, divorce, personal failure – as potential mind-hijacking moments and take steps to restore hope, starting with the reality that there is life beyond those events.
“Take this personally,” Duffy said. “Accept the fact that suicidal thoughts are going to happen among the people around you and let them know it’s OK, because you’re going to believe them when they come to you and ask for help. All of us have the power to build the mental pathways that allow us to re-hijack or brains when bad thoughts are pushing us toward suicide.”
(Editor’s note: Duffy’s presentation was centered on suicide prevention and awareness in the military ranks, and did not address the complicated mental health issues associated with veterans coping with head trauma or diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The article offers highlights of the Aug. 30 discussion and is not verbatim due to content space limitations.)