Pushing past the stigma of suicide: Academy’s command chief advocates for compassion, understanding in battle against suicide

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Randy Kwiatkowski
  • U.S. Air Force Academy command chief

This commentary was written to bring a new face to the great problem of suicide challenging our service members and families every day and offering a nontraditional take to identify new approaches to combating suicide. The reader is urged to take the step of transparency and reveal themselves to those they trust and encourage friends, neighbors, wingmen, and those they love to do the same. We need you. You are valued.

I am suicide. From the beginning of time, countless people have tried and failed to eliminate me. Regardless of civilization’s persistent efforts, I continue to kill, and my success grows with each generation.

I am suicide, and a senior leader’s public address or computer-based training will not eradicate me. Little subverts my agenda. I am here and always have been here. I will continue to take lives until society acknowledges me.

I am suicide, and my agenda is to create pain that compels people to believe life is unbearable and that they are a burden to those around them, those who care. I trap my potential victims in their pain, convincing them that life isn’t worth living and blinding their ability to see hope.  

I am suicide, and gender, age, race, and sexual or religious orientation don’t matter to me. I don’t discriminate. I magnify pain and hijack hope. Efforts to understand and eradicate me have been futile for decades because people rarely pay attention to me, thinking I exist because of depression or other mental illnesses. This is not the case, but I’m a skilled liar. I gain strength from unmanaged stress and trauma.

I am suicide, and I dive into action when the opportunity presents itself, exploiting stigma to convince others that my presence is shameful and must be hidden. I thrive when people believe they are alone and cannot share their struggles. I relish helping people lose faith in trusted helping agencies, convincing them that their disclosure will result in a judgment and other negative consequences.

I am suicide, and I want people to smile and bear me in silence and isolation despite their pain. I want people to live in rumination, fear, and misery and give me all their attention. I grow stronger when they try to distract themselves with self-medication. At my best, I convince them to develop a plan of action and contemplate following through. What will it look like? Who will find me? How will I do it? Some keep me at bay while meticulously planning their death, but I wax and wane for others. No matter, I’m patient and primed for attack.

I am suicide, and I make it difficult for bystanders to recognize the fruits of my labor until it is too late. I make it difficult for them to understand that those who hurt the worst often smile the most. Outsiders might not understand that despite a person’s pain, most are split with contradiction. They want my permanent solution but yearn for hope.

I am suicide, and you make me stronger by denying I exist. You make me stronger when you tell people needing care that they are defective or weak. You weaken my defenses when you listen to stories of how I came to be and understand me through the lens of their pain. You disarm me when you help others identify reasons for living and equip them with resources to help them cope with problems that once seemed insoluble.

I am suicide, and this is how I navigate. To win a battle against me, you must push past the stigma and discomfort I create and listen with compassion and without judgment. Without trying to “fix” them, you can suggest that with good support, the pain they’re experiencing will be reduced and dramatically reduce my chances for success. My enemy is connection. My enemy is compassion.  

I am suicide. I may look strong, but I am not invincible.