Lou Koons has never met anyone who wants to kill themselves.
His non-profit organization, Armed Forces Mission, has trained more than 23,000 people to perform suicide interventions, and he himself has participated in more than 1,700 suicide interventions.
Koons said he believed suicide was not the result of wanting to die, but the result of a loss that led to such overwhelming despair that it short-circuited coping mechanisms.
Circumstances, not signs, are what people need to look out for if they think someone is having suicidal thoughts, he said. Part of suicide intervention is to step in and ask if someone is having suicidal thoughts.
“We have to be committed to the community and we have to be brave to step into a person’s situation,” Koons said. “Nowadays it’s so difficult for a lot of people. We don’t want to be engaged or involved. Somebody’s going to have to have the courage to step in and say, ‘How are you?'”
Koons founded the AFM in 2012 in response to suicidal thoughts found among veterans.
“We have a mission and that is to eradicate suicide in the communities we serve,” he said.
The nonprofit’s initial mission was to focus on veterans’ issues, but Koons said the scope of his work quickly expanded to include police, firefighters, EMS responders and emergency responders. civilians – anyone with suicidal thoughts.
Koons said the goal is to always listen, which leads to building a relationship with someone, then, if necessary, asking them if they’ve considered suicide, then asking them how best to protect them. .
After asking this question, Koons said people gave him ropes or asked him to hold their guns for their safety.
Sometimes the way to help is to call 911, take someone to the hospital or perform an involuntary engagement, he said.
Koons said he was trained in suicide intervention while serving as a chaplain in the military.
However, unbeknownst to his superiors, Koons said he was having suicidal thoughts at the time.
“They had no idea I was suicidal. I consider it divine intervention that they put me in charge of something that I myself needed,” he said.
Koons’ contact with suicidal ideation led him to found the AFM when his own son saved his life.
He said he joined the US Army in 1991 and served four years as a chaplain. Afterwards, Koons said he worked as a real estate broker and had a thriving business in the South Atlanta metro area until the real estate market crashed in 2008.
The following year, one of his sons was injured in an explosion in his garden, and it sent Koons into a tailspin.
He said his son was trying to start a fire to burn off debris and threw accelerant at the flames, which exploded. He was taken to Grady Medical Center for his burns.
Hospital bills were difficult. Koons said his family dropped their medical insurance because he couldn’t afford it and his real estate business was still struggling.
So he decided to join the army.
“My goal was to deploy with the Georgia National Guard and die in the desert. No one would know it was a suicide and then my family would be taken care of for the rest of their lives,” said said Koons.
Koons’ eldest son was also in the military when he joined. His son was stationed in Charleston, while Koons trained at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Koons and his training unit were sent to Charleston for some drills, and while there he spent time with his son on a boat tour.
His son had just received two hours of suicide intervention training from the US Air Force, Koons said, and said his father had stopped training.
“I’ve always worked,” Koons said. “He was the only person who saw that sign. He said, ‘Dad, are you having suicidal thoughts?'”
After leaving Charleston, Koons said his son drove to Fort Jackson at four a.m. for training.
“I just realized that there are a lot of people like me who are hurting and having suicidal thoughts, and unless someone asks them if they are having these suicidal thoughts, there is a risk that ‘they die,’ Koons said. .
The following year, he founded the AFM and now travels the country teaching suicide intervention skills to anyone willing to learn.
Heather Burrell, AFM board secretary and former US Army physician, joined the association in its early days.
She said one of AFM’s goals is to reduce the stigma surrounding conversations about suicidal ideation.
“If someone told you they had cancer, you’d say, ‘Oh, that’s horrible’, and you go to the doctor and there are treatments and groups you can attend, but if you say “I feel bad and I’m struggling and the only way out I see is suicide, people can turn away,” she said. “Everything in the dark is scary. When you bring it to light and have conversations, that realization will often give people a little relief.”
If the stigma persists, she says, then people often won’t have the emotional tools for themselves to address the issue.
“Our prayer is that one day we won’t have these conversations about suicide and that it won’t be people’s priority,” she said. “Instead, they have a safe place and safe people they can talk to and say, ‘Hey, I’m fighting. I need help. “”
Peter Madsen, a retired brigadier general and former chairman of the AFM board, said he joined the organization to help veterans.
What he originally thought was a veterans issue quickly escalated.
“We found it wasn’t just veterans,” he said. “It was society. It was the teenagers. It was the people during the pandemic. Suicide isn’t just a veterans issue – it’s a culture issue. We see it in our schools and in our communities.”
Koons said he has trained more than 500 first responder agencies to perform suicide interventions.
Many times after teaching an intervention course at an agency, he receives a call from a firefighter or police officer saying that they used what he taught them 30 minutes or a few hours after the course, did he declare.
More people should be open about suicidal ideation, Koons said. He doesn’t believe more candid discussions about suicide will lead to higher risk, but it will just become an easier topic to talk about and talk about.
“I may not be able to save the world, but I can save someone’s world,” he said. “That’s the motivation we have to help people.”