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Air Force Suicide Prevention Program Reduces Suicide Rate

Science Update

Air Force personnel in foreground, aircraft in background
photo: U.S. Air Force Photo/ Staff Sgt. Angelita M. Lawrence

A U.S. Air Force suicide prevention program is associated with reduced suicide rates among Air Force personnel during times in which the program was rigorously implemented and monitored, according to an NIMH-funded study published online ahead of print May 13, 2010, in the American Journal of Public Health.

Background

The Air Force Suicide Prevention Program (AFSPP) was implemented in 1997. Based on the premise that individuals at risk for suicide exhibit early warning signs, AFSPP emphasizes leadership and community involvement in reducing suicide by encouraging Air Force leaders to actively support and get involved with suicide prevention efforts. It trains commanders in how and when to seek out mental health services for their troops, provides training to all military and civilian personnel in suicide prevention, and incorporates other community-based components.

Kerry Knox, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester Medical Center, and colleagues studied the impact of AFSPP in reducing suicide among Air Force personnel from 1997 until 2008. They examined suicide rates from 1981 to 2008 to provide historical context during three military conflicts, and a downsizing of the Air Force that occurred in the 1990s.

Results of the Study

The researchers found that suicide rates were significantly lower after the program was launched than before—an average of two suicides per 100,000 per quarter occurred during the intervention period compared to three suicides per 100,000 per quarter prior to the intervention rollout. During the third quarter of 2004, however, suicide rates increased. Knox and colleagues suggest that the upward spike may have been the result of a diminished implementation of ASFPP due to increased demands from the two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In response, Air Force leadership took steps to strengthen implementation of the program and ensure compliance of its components, according to the authors.

Significance

The results suggest that the program is effective but its success is contingent on continuous implementation efforts and ongoing monitoring. The program cannot be maintained by "inherent momentum," the authors concluded.

What's Next

The authors suggest that the program, if maintained and monitored for compliance, can continue to keep suicide rates low in the Air Force. They also suggest that the program could be implemented in other communities and organizations to prevent suicide and reduce the stigma associated with the mental and psychosocial problems that often precipitate suicide attempts.

Reference

Knox K, Pflanz S, Talcott GW, Campise RL, Lavigne JE, Bajorska A, Tu X, Caine ED. The US Air Force Suicide Prevention Program: Implications for Public Health Policy . American Journal of Public Health. Online ahead of print May 13, 2010.