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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Dec. 15, 2022

Members learn to teach peers about suicide intervention

By Keisha Reynolds, MyCG Writer

The Coast Guard is actively working to improve mental health education throughout our organization. This past fall, 87 members and civilians participated in train-the-trainer sessions for Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) and safeTALK.  
Cmdr. LaMar Henderson explained this one-time effort was meant to increase awareness within the Coast Guard about suicide prevention and intervention as well as cultivate organic resources.  
“We wanted to make sure we had a good mix of people represented—civilians and uniformed members, whether they were officers or enlisted,” he said. “When these facilitators begin teaching, we want to make sure they could offer support that everyone is comfortable with.” 

Lt. Eric Sanford took the ASIST class and was equally impressed with the variety of people in attendance. “As the only chaplain in the group, I think the thing that excited me was seeing different members coming to be trained in order to offer the training at various sized units. Their desire will help turn the tables here at the Coast Guard to keep people safe.”

Sanford plans to use what he's learned in his role as chaplain at Base Kodiak, Alaska, where he has been stationed since November 2021. "The multiplied impact of having trained people being able to keep an eye out for each other and talk to a person having thoughts of self-harm without clamming up, gives me as a chaplain more resources to connect.” Sanford is on track to complete his certification in December.

The two ASIST instructor education classes were held over a five-day period and the two safeTALK train-the-trainer classes were held over a two-day period. All sessions were located at either Training Center (TRACEN) Yorktown, Virginia, or Base Alameda, California. The instructor classes differ from the regular participant sessions due to the focus on developing future facilitators. Those who attend the regular ASIST trainings can expect it to last two days and the safeTALK classes are typically four-hours long.  
According to Henderson, the major difference between the two courses is the level of awareness and how the information is applied. The safeTALK course provides an overview on how to identify someone who is in distress and experiencing thoughts of self-harm, as well as how to connect them to a trained person when they are in crises mode in order to assist them. At a deeper level, the lengthier ASIST training allows attendees to learn how to actually intervene and divert someone in need while also linking them with professional services.  
The next step in for the attendees, who are now considered “provisional trainers,” to receive full certification. To receive full certification they are required to provide at least three trainings in their areas of responsibility (AOR).  
“It’s important for people not only to become certified trainers but to build a network of support,” Henderson said, noting that self-harm among service members has been trending upwards. "We want to be able to support those in need and get them into care if they feel like they are in crisis.”  
Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Salazar is now a provisional trainer, working to become certified. He emphasized the importance of the certification, “because of an experience that happened on a cutter that shook me for a long time,” he said.  
Salazar, now located at Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, since 2020, was previously on a cutter where he served as an informal mentor to a younger enlisted member. “He was a non-rate, a young kid at 19 and fresh out of high school. I was 27. He was fun loving with a big smile on his face all of the time and he would sometimes call me for advice,” said Salazar. “One day, he called me crying hysterically and couldn’t seem to get ahold of himself.” 
Luckily, Salazar recognized the signs. He had recently taken ASIST training as a participant and still had the ASIST card in his wallet. Once he got to the young man, he asked the most important questions including: Are you planning to commit suicide? The young man confirmed that he wanted to end his own life. “I pulled [the ASIST card] out my wallet and it was almost textbook,” said Salazar. “We ended up taking him to the emergency room and saved his life.” 
This experience made Salazar realize the power of what he’d learned, and he wanted to share it with others. In fact, Salazar said he was one of the people pushing for this kind of training at the beginning of COVID when the world had largely shut down. So far, he’s facilitated one class and has scheduled two others for later in the year, which will complete his certification.
“I think this training is key for everyone,” said Salazar. “You never really know who will be in need of help. The person [who] reached out to me couldn’t have been a happier person. It is probably one of the most important classes we have that’s offered.” 

This massive training effort was funded by a $600,000 grant awarded to the Coast Guard through the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress by Uniform Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS). Living Works Education conducted the training sessions.  
For more information on scheduling ASIST or safeTALK training in your AOR please contact your Employee Assistance Program Coordinator or email Cmdr. LaMar Henderson, the Suicide Prevention and Behavioral Health program manager. Also, check out the Health Safety, and Work-Life Directorate (CG-1111) website for additional resources and information. 

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