Thoughts on Leadership—Dealing with the Reality of Suicide

  • Published
  • By Gen. Roger Brady
  • Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe
Not every aspect of leadership is fun. Suicide is a reality leaders must deal with that is both sad and frustrating. Sometimes in the aftermath of an Airman ending his or her life, we're able to "explain" it but we are hard-pressed to understand it. And sometimes, even when we sense it's about to happen, we're unable to stop it.

As a layman, I have more questions than answers regarding the workings of the human mind and why some individuals arrive at suicide as the only answer to end their pain or to escape a seemingly hopeless situation. However, I do have some observations.

My experience is that when individuals start to indicate through word or actions that they may cause themselves harm, we focus on addressing their sense of hopelessness, and to the degree we can we help alleviate their situation. Usually this includes many varied expressions of empathy and emotional support. This is as it should be.

Recently, I re-read one of my favorite books, Man's Search for Meaning. The author is Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and survivor of the World War II concentration camps. His observations on suicide resonate with me. His captors were all too happy to have the overcrowded population of the camps thinned out by suicide, but a few determined fellow prisoners tried to prevent them. He said that in some cases, "it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them ... when a man becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, he will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the 'why' for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any 'how.'"

What struck me about this passage was the appeal to the individual's sense of commitments and responsibility. We've all made commitments ... to our families, to loved ones, to the nation, to the Air Force, to our unit, to each other, and to the defense of all that we enjoy as Americans. Only we, individually, can add our unique contribution to the lives of others and to our mission. Without us, it simply is not there.

Whatever circumstances and difficulties the future may bring, our relationships and our mission are unfinished work. Giving up is something we simply cannot do.