NAPLES, Italy — Donna Lunsford isn’t a busybody.

Far from it. She’s usually shy, reserved, quiet — but very caring.

Lunsford joined 12 others recently in a suicide-prevention class to help her step out of her comfort zone — to “empower” herself, she says, to intervene when she notices if a friend or a neighbor might need help.

About five years ago, a teenager she knew expressed thoughts of suicide. She didn’t know what more to do than to pass her concerns about the teen’s thoughts to a local pastor.

“The training is helping me get over the fear of helping someone, of interfering,” the 54-year-old spouse of a DOD civilian employee said. “You can’t help anybody if you don’t ask.”

With the two-day Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training program, she joins a growing community network of people trained not just to be aware of suicide, but to have the skills to intervene.

They’re calling it “first aid” against suicides — a “little web of lifeguards,” said trainer Chaplain (Lt. Cmdr.) Bruce Mentzer.

“The ASIST program provides everyday people with the perspective and skills to empower them to provide effective care for others,” said Chaplain (Lt.) Jason Hefner, the lead ASIST instructor for the Navy’s region, which encompasses Europe, Africa and Southwest Asia.

“Suicide is one of the most underestimated problems in our culture. It is the third leading cause of death for 17- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. and the 10th leading cause of death for all age groups.”

The training wasn’t all “pink and fluffy,” said Sharon Alcott, a retired British military police detective who lives in Naples because her husband is stationed with NATO forces. “Each one of us can go away feeling a little confident that our assistance would save a life,” she said.

Navy chaplains lead the training, hitting bases throughout the region. There are certified instructors in Naples, Sigonella, Sicily, and Souda Bay, Greece. “I hope that we can get a certified instructor at every base in order to increase suicide awareness and develop a strong prevention program,” Hefner said.

Too often, military personnel get wrapped up in the mission, and fail to notice that a sailor might have screwed up not because he’s stupid or incompetent, but because of mental health issues, said Seabee Petty Officer 1st Class Gerald Mabrito, 36.

“As leaders, we tend to focus on the job, and in fast-paced jobs, we’re always thinking, ‘Get the job done, get the job done.’ It sometimes desensitizes you to problems people might be going through,” he said after attending the workshop.

The training was developed in the Canadian medical community the 1980s by LivingWorks Education, Inc., and is widely used both in the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army.

The Army has been using it since the mid-1980s as an intervention tool, Army spokesman Wayne Hall said.

“The Army has placed special emphasis on first-line leaders being empowered to plan and implement education, awareness, and training programs to enhance intervention skills,” he said. “That way, soldiers, family members and [Army] civilians can better recognize stressors such as failed relationships, legal and financial problems, and occupational and operational issues that can contribute to suicidal behavior.”

The Army has grappled with a spike in suicides over the past several years. Its active soldier suicide rates increased from 12.4 per 100,000 in 2003 to 18.1 per 100,000 in 2007 — an all-time high, Hall said. In 2007, 115 soldiers committed suicide, the highest number since the service started keeping records in 1980. Final statistics for 2008 are due out this week.

In every branch of the military, counseling and mental health services for troops and their families abound — provided the grieving seek them out.

ASIST is one tool to train people who live and work among those who might be contemplating suicide to not just recognize signs, but intercede as well, said Dr. (Lt. Cmdr.) Robert Zalewski-Zaragoza, a psychiatrist and head of the mental health department for Naval Hospital Naples.

“You might be aware of someone thinking of suicide. What do you do with that information? That’s what people in the field really struggle with,” he said.

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