One of the most important actions to take when someone has suicide ideation is to take the method of suicide away from them according to Kathryn Lynnes, a suicide attempt survivor and civilian within the Department of the Air Force.
“Try to get them to give you their lethal means,” said Lynnes. “Don’t try to talk them out of it. Don’t promise them that you won’t tell anyone, won’t take them to the hospital, but let them talk. Let them say what they’re feeling. Don’t challenge it.”
Lynnes is not a mental health worker nor a Violence Prevention Integrator, however, she is a suicide survivor who tried to overdose with medication several times before finally being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After seeking mental health treatment and being given a bi-polar diagnosis, she wants others to know there is help and there is hope.
“The Impact to an Airman’s career due to help-seeking is rarely permanent. There may be short-term setbacks such as a temporary change in deployment or flying status,” said Col. Scott Sonnek, Air Force director of psychological health, Air Force Surgeon General.
“However, the benefits of getting help early far outweigh any temporary setbacks to an Airman’s career by improving their overall well-being and resiliency, as well as strengthening their relationships with their family, friends and peers,” he said.
Lynnes said her issues with depression began in grade school. Growing up in a midwestern factory town, she said mental illness was not a topic that was discussed in her family. She was so unhappy she planned her death as she walked home on the last day of the school year just after finishing seventh grade.
“I felt so happy and relieved that I wasn’t going to feel so horrible anymore,” said Lynnes.
That night, after her parents had gone to bed, Lynnes went into the woods behind her house and attempted suicide by taking pills and drinking alcohol. “I didn’t die. I didn’t even pass out,” said Lynnes. Instead, she got really sick, vomiting everything up, and simply returned home to bed.
“I never told anyone until I was in my forties,” said Lynnes.
Although she suffered bouts of depression all through high school, Lynnes said she didn’t try another attempt until she was in college. Surviving an overdose once again, she was sent home for a semester but her parents had no idea what to do. She said they didn’t even take her to a psychiatrist.
Upon her return to university, Lynnes said she sought out help on her own without much success. She finished her undergraduate degree without experiencing another serious episode of depression until several years later while working in a little fishing and logging town in Alaska’s southeast panhandle.
“I had a really, really, really bad depression. I couldn’t even get out of bed. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t do anything and my roommate finally made me go to the psychiatrist who came up once a month from Seattle,” said Lynnes.
It was then that Lynnes was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“It’s very different than regular depression, not that depression isn’t bad enough, but there’s only about three medications that are approved by the FDA directly to treat it that I know of,” said Lynnes. “None of them work for me.”
Lynnes struggled with depression due to her bipolar disorder on and off throughout law school. Then went on to a very successful career into the mid-1990s as a partner in a consulting firm. That is until, as she puts it, “the bottom fell out again.”
She voluntarily admitted herself to a hospital to try different therapies and medications. The process of going through different treatments, though, including going on and off different medications, presented another set of problems and she tried to overdose again after being discharged.
She credits a friend miles away in another state for saving her life.
“A friend of mine in Vermont just got a weird feeling in the middle of the night, tried calling me and couldn’t get me. She called my parents who lived about five miles away. She convinced them to come over because she was so freaked out.” said Lynnes.
Lynnes believes that intervention saved her life. Although she said she now manages her bipolar disorder with a regular doctor appointments and therapy, she still suffers from bouts of depression but refuses to fall victim to it.
“I had this epiphany one night. I have three choices. I can go on disability – give up. I can do it again. Or, I can come out swinging and be an advocate,” said Lynnes.
She decided on the latter. One of the first things Lynnes said she did was join a panel discussion on depression at a local Public Broadcasting Station.
“I just cold-called the station and said why don’t you have anyone on your panel who actually has depression? And they said, are you volunteering? And I said, yes I am,” Lynnes explained.
After the program, people came up to Lynnes to tell her they saw her on TV and thanked her for participating. Lynnes said there is still a stigma associated with mental health issues. That’s why she feels it’s so important to become an advocate. She believes survivors of suicide attempts are rarely heard, much less understood.
“People need to understand that it’s not done out of anger, it’s not done out of people trying to get even. If it’s situational, it might be a spur of the moment thing and you get to this zone – I compare it to a pressure cooker where I get really, really wound up – like I just can’t take it anymore,” Lynnes said.
Years of experience in dealing with her bipolar disorder have taught Lynnes to, as she says, “bifurcate my brain.”
“This will stop, this will end. This isn’t permanent. This is brain chemistry talking to you. It ‘ain’t’ real,” said Lynnes.
Lynnes has not only survived suicide attempts, she continues to work as a top-level civilian employee of the Department of the Air Force, and she is more than happy to offer herself as an example of someone who sought help and continues to thrive in the Air Force. In fact, she is adamant that stories like hers should be told more often. “We [survivors] know more about this than anyone,” said Lynnes.
She said having people like her involved in suicide prevention is critical because she believes no one understands depression and suicide ideation better than someone who has survived an attempt.
“Because I really do get it and that person understands that I do really understand. That I have been there and I survived it, and they can too.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicide ideation, or even mild bouts of distress or depression, there are a number of ways to reach out for help through the Chaplaincy or mental health clinic at the nearest installation. Air and Space Professionals are encouraged to contact MilitaryOne Source for additional resources at 1-800-342-9647, or the Employee Assistance Program for Civilians at 1-866-580-9078. If there is an immediate threat to harm oneself, call 911 or the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.