FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) In a response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Department of the Air Force said that there were 11 suicides on Eielson Air Force Base from 1/1/2001 to 2/12/2019.
Director of Psychological Health, Major Michael Ann Glotfelter and 354th Fighter Wing Commander Colonel Benjamin Bishop spoke about suicide prevention programs already in place on base as well as recommendations for helping to support those at risk. (Sara Tewksbury/KTVF)
354th Fighter Wing Commander Colonel Benjamin Bishop said he is confident in the resources available for suicide prevention on base.
“The reason I’m confident is because we have a strong community here, the 354th Fighter Wing on Eielson, we pride ourselves on being able to thrive in the harshest environments. As a community that is growing, we have great connectivity with the Fairbanks North Star Borough. As we bring 3,500 more airmen and families to this community, having that connectivity is important for us to make sure that we have that force that is ready, resilient, and postured for the future,” said Bishop.
Director of Psychological Health, Major Michael Ann Glotfelter, says she works with the violence prevention integrator, community support coordinator, and the whole installation for suicide prevention. Although, Glotfelter says their mental health clinic is only able to see active duty service members right now but that the behavioral health optimization program is able to see family members through primary care.
With the growth to the Eielson community, Bishop says they are looking at how to grow their resources, “areas that we’re looking at is making sure our base support agencies are resourced in order to support that growth, also our medical area, and also just working with the community to make sure we have housing and basic resources for our airman and their families,” said Bishop.
Two events Bishop highlights are a ‘stand down day’ that was held on October 18th where they talked resiliency, and on October 17th, a spouse’s symposium was held with more than 100 spouses spoke connections and resiliency.
Bishop says each base has unique challenges and opportunities and the fact that Eielson is in the Interior of Alaska does present unique challenges.
“Especially going into the winter, when seasonal affective disorder does impact many airmen and families. However, I am confident that as a community that’s growing by investing in connections, between airmen and families, and also the larger Fairbanks North Star Borough community, we can build that resilient community, that cannot just survive up in the interior of Alaska, but actually thrive and capitalize on all the opportunities this community has to offer,” said Bishop.
Bishop says it’s important to him to help break the stigma that might stop airmen from asking for behavioral health help. “For me, asking for help is a sign of strength, and making sure that we have airmen and families that have the ability to connect with the resources that they need is very important for me,” said Bishop.
Glotfelter says death by suicide is based on suffering. “Folks don’t have the intention to die, they want suffering to end typically, so if we can attack that sooner, through addressing relationship issues, addressing financial issues, getting folks connected to the community before they’re so isolated and suffering so much, then we can work towards prevention,” said Glotfelter.
Suicide prevention resources can be anything that manages distress, “there’s some risk factors for suicide that folks don’t even think about. Insomnia is a risk factor for suicide, chronic pain is a risk factor for suicide, so even seeking care through the primary health clinic is going to help with suicide prevention. We’ve got an insomnia class, a sleep enhancement class, seeking family advocacy resources, airman and family readiness center, so folks can get help with financial stuff. All of that is suicide prevention,” said Glotfelter.
Glotfelter says following a death by suicide, her office will partner with Chaplains, Military & Family Life Counselors, violence prevention integrator, and the community support coordinator. She says they also support the commanders in how to provide notification to the unit and how to follow up after a death by suicide. Glotfelter says the exact response is modified based on the needs of the unit.
“Suicide is a problem for the Air Force, it’s a problem for society, and our local community here is no exception. So as a commander at Eielson Air Force Base, I’m very interested in growing our community, and make sure that growth happens in a sustainable manner, to ensure that we have a force that is ready, resilient, and postured for the future, especially here in the Interior of Alaska,” said Bishop.
For those who want to help their friends and neighbors, Glotfelter says to encourage early help seeking, and creating connections to help people manage distress before it gets to suicidal thoughts or death by suicide.