Suicide Prevention Chief Shares Real-Life Mental Health Experiences

Story Number: NNS191009-08Release Date: 10/9/2019 3:08:00 PM
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By Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Bodie Estep, USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) Public Affairs

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (NNS) -- Chief Personnel Specialist Katrina R. Connor starts every command indoctrination course she teaches with the same story.

“I’ve known my friend since I was about nine years old,” Connor, the suicide prevention coordinator aboard USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77) (GHWB) said after a deep sigh. “She came from a background that wasn’t very healthy.

“She struggled with her identity, she struggled with just being a child. She struggled with emotional abuse, physical abuse, parental abuse, and this little girl attempted suicide. She just felt like nobody loved her and she was alone, so why live?”

Connor goes on to explain that the little girl survives. She grows up, joins the military, and has a happy life with her husband and her children. However, tragedy finds its way back to her.

“She lost a child,” Connor said. “She lost a 3-year-old daughter, died in her arms.”

This put her back in a poor mental state. She began to have those negative thoughts again. Fortunately, a master chief petty officer saw the signs and reached out. She got the help she needed and was able to fight through this new struggle.

Connor finishes her story with a simple sentence: “That person is me.”

Connor tells her story to new GHWB Sailors in the hopes of showing that anyone can overcome any struggle and they don’t have to do it alone. There are people who care.

This is an important message, especially with the climbing suicide rates. Military Times reported that an all-time high was recorded for military suicides in 2018.

According to Lt. Kimberly Holton, the ship’s psychologist aboard GHWB, suicidal thoughts are most often brought about by feelings of hopelessness and isolation.

“They don’t actually want their lives to be over, they just want to be able to not feel how they are feeling,” Holton said.

There are some common ideas on ways to help combat these feelings. According to the Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, exercising can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while also increasing self-esteem and cognitive function.

Elizabeth Scott, a wellness coach, author, and award-winning blogger, stresses the importance of finding hobbies. "Such activities were also correlated with higher levels of positive psychosocial states and lower levels of depression and negative effect," she said.

While there are a few things that can be done at the personal level, it is also important to build a system of support.

“It is really important to build friendships, to be engaged socially in real-time, real-world," Holton said.

Connor agrees, using her own story as an example. After losing her child, she joined a support group.

“We became a family,” Connor said. “And I tell you, if I didn’t have that support, I don’t know what I would do.”

Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Fuel) 1st Class Cora Collins, the president of the Command Resiliency Team (CRT), suggests finding someone to talk to.

“We have to come out of our shells,” Collins said. “If something is bothering you, you need to talk about it. Utilize a mentor.”

The CRT is consistently looking at trends, starting at command level and working down to work centers. Once they find any issues, they collaborate to find possible solutions. The command also offers a variety of resources such as Fleet and Family services, the chaplain, Command Managed Equal Opportunity (CMEO) Manager, and the psychology officer.

Even with so many resources being offered, Sailors still aren't speaking up about their mental health. This raises another question: What can be done to make Sailors feel comfortable about opening up?

Connor, Holton, and Collins, who are often working with Sailors struggling with their mental health, commonly see that Sailors don’t want to speak up out of fear that they will be isolated, ridiculed, or invalidated. All three agree that normalizing struggle would be very healthy for the command.

“One of the things that can be really helpful is to normalize it from the perspective that there is nothing wrong with you because of how you are feeling,” Holton said.

It is vital to create an environment where Sailors can feel safe speaking up about their feelings without fear of consequences. This is something that could be implemented into training: teaching everyone how to engage with each other in a manner that makes them feel safe and understood.

Ultimately, this crisis cannot be solved by a single individual. It is a group effort.

“Mental health and suicidality are personal, group, and command wide problems, because we as a community really invest, from the leadership down, in taking care of our people, taking care of our Sailors, and taking care of ourselves,” Holton said.

In order to take steps toward ending this crisis, everyone needs to be involved. No one should be facing their demons alone, because that is when the demons have the best chance at winning. 

“You wouldn’t believe how people will open up to you if they know that you genuinely care,” Connor said. 

It can be as simple as asking someone about their weekend and really taking an interest in what they have to say. In the end, everyone just wants to know someone cares.

If you are dealing with depression, anxiety or suicidal ideation reach out to the ASIST team, ship's psychologist, a chaplain, or call the national suicide lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text “home” to 741741.


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