By 1st Lt. Anna-Marie Wyant, 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 14, 2016
Master Sgt. Altrameise Myers, a knowledge management specialist at the 920th Communications Flight, does 22 pushups in her office at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., Sept. 12, 2016. The 22 Pushup Challenge emerged to raise awareness about the 22 veterans who die by suicide on average each day, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs report. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Anna-Marie Wyant)
Master Sgt. Altrameise Myers and her son, AJ. (courtesy photo)
One Air Force reservist is trying to open up dialogue about a topic that is close to her heart, yet many people are too uncomfortable to discuss: suicide.
Master Sgt. Altrameise Myers remembers the day her son died like it was yesterday. Nearly four years ago, Myers’ 17-year-old son, AJ, ended his life. He had been suffering from an anxiety disorder for a few years and had recently begun taking a new prescription. Myers’ world completely changed that day.
“My son died September 30, the last day of Suicide Prevention Month. At the time, I didn’t even know what that was,” said Myers, a knowledge management specialist at the 920th Communications Flight here.
Myers is now fully aware of this month’s significance, and she uses it as an opportunity to raise awareness about suicide and share her story with others. She hopes to reduce the stigma and get people talking about this serious subject.
“It’s important to talk about suicide,” Myers said. “I’m not ashamed of how my son died. He had a sickness, and he died from it. Mental illness is a sickness just like any other, but people don’t always recognize that.”
Myers encourages others to be honest about suicide. She said she knows some people feel societal pressure to hide a loved one’s cause of death if it was suicide, but she stresses that families shouldn’t have to feel that way. She said avoiding the topic won’t improve the situation.
“I don’t feel like that helps our society. We need to talk about it to fix it,” Myers said.
Myers isn’t just talking about it—she’s sweating for it. This month she has committed to completing 22 pushups daily and running a total of 40 miles, then sharing these experiences daily on Facebook to raise awareness.
The 22 Pushup Challenge has gone viral on social media and was created to raise awareness about the 22 veterans who commit suicide on average each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Additionally, the World Health Organization released a study stating that one person commits suicide approximately every 40 seconds, for a total of 800,000 lives lost across the globe annually.
The Air Force focuses heavily on suicide prevention. Airmen are encouraged to seek help when they are struggling with mental illness or having suicidal thoughts. Additionally, members attend suicide prevention and awareness training annually and are encouraged to pay attention to and care for their wingmen. According to the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, 94 Airmen died by suicide in 2015.
Myers wants to raise awareness about these alarming numbers of veteran and global suicides, but she wants her son to be more than a statistic. She shares his story to not only help others, but also keep his memory alive.
“He cannot speak. He can’t do pushups. He can’t run--but I can,” Myers said.
She said her main goal now is to use AJ’s story to educate people and possibly prevent future suicides. The official mental health awareness color is green, which was also AJ’s favorite color. Myers said she wears green every chance she gets and uses it as an opportunity to raise awareness.
“People who see me wear green all the time ask why, so I tell them about AJ,” she said. “Even years later, they tell me every time they see green they think of AJ. That’s the goal that I was going for.”
Myers said friends and coworkers who have lost a loved one by suicide come and talk to her. She said she does her best to support them, even if it’s as simple as lending an ear or giving a hug. Although she will never get over her son’s death, Myers said helping others helps her cope with her loss.
“If I don’t stay active, I get sad,” Myers said. “I miss him every single day.”
Her son’s tragedy motivated her to learn more about mental health and suicide. She spent the last few years researching holistic approaches to addressing mental health issues, including meditation, art therapy, music therapy, nutrition, yoga and more. While she appreciates traditional medicine, she believes in exploring other ways to help people help themselves. She said suicides are often the result of mental health issues, so finding methods to resolve these issues could save lives.
In 2013, Myers started a nonprofit organization in memory of her son called AJ’s Peace Project to provide an outlet for teenagers who struggle with mental illness. AJ’s Peace Project is supported by volunteers and through various fundraisers including selling homemade jewelry, 5K races, T-shirt sales and more. The money collected all goes toward giving teens with mental health issues access to various therapeutic activities including art, yoga, horticulture and more free of charge.
In addition, the nonprofit seeks to educate parents about caring for a child with mental illness. Myers’ goal is to eventually raise enough funds to open a permanent facility and offer additional services for children of all ages.
Myers said addressing mental illness at an early stage can help prevent suicide. It all begins with learning to recognize the signs, being comfortable with intervening, and caring about one another, she added.
“If you have a friend or family member that is sad or depressed, it’s your responsibility to be in that person’s space,” Myers said. “It’s so sad that a person can be so alone, and we don’t even know it, and then they take their lives.”
Myers warns people to take suicide talk seriously. When AJ first mentioned having suicidal thoughts, Myers said she didn’t understand and didn’t think it was possible.
“When he came to me talking about suicide, I asked, ‘Why are you saying this, son? Do you know what this would do to me and your sister?’ He said, ‘Yes, I think about that and it (suicidal thought) goes away. I don’t really think it’s anything.’ I didn’t understand the seriousness of it. When somebody says it, you cannot assume they aren’t serious,” Myers said.
As a single mother working full time, Myers, who has a teenage daughter, said she initially had a lot of regrets about not being around her children as much as she would have liked. She questioned whether that may have contributed to her son’s death. But basking on the past would never bring him back; all she could do was move forward and share her story to help others. She eventually learned to focus on the present and stopped self-blaming.
“I can’t change the past, but I can talk about it and help to remove the shame from mental illness and suicide,” Myers said. “When you know better, you do better.”
Despite her own struggles, Myers aims to help her fellow Airmen and others to face their challenges whether they’re related to mental illness, suicide or other personal issues. She said many people have told her she inspired them, and they are impressed with her ability to discuss her personal loss candidly. But there are many times she can’t hold back the tears.
“They don’t realize how broken I am on the inside,” she said. “I have my down days. I lost my boy, but I’ve got to keep moving. I tell them, ‘You’ve got to keep moving too.’”
Myers has kept moving over the last four years, and this month she’s doing it one pushup and one mile at a time. While raising awareness for suicide prevention is her main goal during September, Myers said being a mother will always be her first priority.
“I have two kids still--one in heaven and one on earth,” Myers said. “Until my very last breath, I will do everything I can for my children.”