Suicide Prevention, Stoplights, and the Purple Hippopotamus

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Years ago during an Air Force Professional Military Education, I once saw a memory demonstration about how peculiar phrases could get “sticky” and take hold in your memory. The phrase used in the class was “purple hippopotamus”, and I’ve involuntarily remembered the phrase ever since. By itself, it’s a useless image; but if you tie it to something useful, it might save a life.

Chances are you’ve been through an Air Force suicide prevention training activity in the last year. We learn about suicide prevention as a part of the Air Force’s Green Dot training, Wingman Day, and in other unit-level resiliency events. Most of us are no strangers to the facts presented in these classes, yet we continue to lose dozens of Airmen to suicide every year. Why?

Part of the problem is rooted in that approaching Airmen or family members about suicide is difficult. Despite our training and education, despite years of computer-based training and, more recently, numerous classroom sessions, the simple challenge remains that it’s awkward for most of us to broach the topic of suicide.

The value, then, in repeating the message of suicide prevention is that it reinforces its importance and keeps it fresh in our minds. We each have to presume that we will be the most proactive Wingmen a person in crisis will encounter and then be willing to engage folks that seem to be in at risk of suicide.

There will always be a chance that we’ll presume wrong – that we’ll reach out to a Wingman who we thought needed help, only to be rebuffed and told that we guessed wrong. However, that shouldn’t discourage us from looking out for each other. If nothing else, you’ll send the message that you cared enough to ask the question, break your inertia, and take action.

Some of us have worked with or known folks who dealt with suicide, and have experienced the chilling effect it has on the unit and on the individual. If you’re one of those people, then you already know that it’s so much better to reach out as soon as your gut tells you there’s a problem. Don’t wait. As a reminder, use the A.C.E model to get you started:

Ask your Wingman – be calm, but be direct: break the seal and ask “are you thinking of killing yourself?”

Care for your Wingman – don’t use force, keep your cool, actively listen, and remove any means of harm from the immediate area.
Escort your Wingman – don’t leave them alone, and link up with your chain of command, Chaplain, behavioral health professional, or primary care provider.

But as I said above, you probably already know these steps from your training. What you need to do is remind yourself regularly that you need to be the sensor to detect those who need the help. The next time you find yourself sitting at a stoplight, think “purple hippopotamus” and associate that annoyingly persistent image with the reminder: “I’ll be on the lookout for my Wingman—and I’ll be the one to help when they need it.”