***Trigger Warning: Suicide Stories
In this episode, we will be discussing the topic of suicide. We want to forewarn our listeners that the content may include sensitive and potentially triggering discussions about suicide, self-harm, and mental health challenges. If you or someone you know is experiencing distress related to these topics, we strongly advise listening discretion and encourage seeking support from mental health professionals or helplines. Your well-being matters, and help is available.
Join me, your host Nate Scheer, as I delve into the emotionally charged realm of mental health through a powerful conversation with retired Colonel Robert Swanson. Colonel Swanson, with his wealth of experience, offers an unprecedented look into the realities of suicide and its rippling effects in 'Fight for Each Other.' He shares striking stories of resilience like that of Donna Rank, a woman whose life was forever altered by her Marine husband's suicide and its impact on their son. We also hear about the extraordinary journey of a young Air Force captain who, in the face of adversity, kept his mental strength alive and finished his PhD, proving that battles can be won in the mind.
As we pivot into the second part of our chat, Colonel Swanson uncovers his personal narrative of overcoming career obstacles, regaining his security clearance, and retiring as a full-bird colonel. He passionately emphasizes the importance of dismantling the mental health stigma, especially in leadership roles, showcasing the power of vulnerability and the courage it takes to seek help. We touch on the heart-wrenching loss of Robin Williams, highlighting how those in the deepest pain are often masters of disguise, and underscore the urgency of mental fitness.
To wrap up our riveting discussion, Colonel Swanson and I delve deeper into the importance of self-care, mental fitness, and the strength that comes with vulnerability. We remind our listeners that seeking help is not a weakness, but a commendable act of strength. We also shed light on the power of connection and the necessity of acknowledging mental health issues. Listen in, as we together underscore the importance of mental health, the power of vulnerability, and the urgency of addressing issues before they escalate.
Hi, I'm your host, Nate Shear, and this is Mind Matters, the podcast for love, life and learning, where your mind matters. Today we have a very special guest, retired Colonel Robert Swanson. I saw him out at Kadena. I was able to break away the clinic for a short period of time and be able to see him. I know there's a lot of other people that were not able to break away. I know from a medical standpoint it's sometimes difficult for us to get away and a lot of people on the flight line and other things. I really wanted to try to get him on the show and be able to share this amazing and super powerful message. You could tell how powerful the message was when we were there. It was a long line of people that were ready to talk to him right after his wonderful stories. One skill that he has is the ability to tell a wonderful story. Not everyone has that and so it's very powerful. I'm really excited for him to be on here. He brought no PowerPoints, which I strongly agree with and very appreciative. There was no PowerPoints in his story. Welcome to the show, sir. Thank you, Appreciate it Absolutely. To kick off, just to give the listeners a little understanding of what you're doing and what you're all about and what you're using your time with, or how you're using your time right now. Can you tell us one app you're using, one book you recommend and one thing you are currently listening to?Robert Swanson:
Oh gosh, what a wide, open-ended question. I'm kind of a go-on-the-go kind of guy. Audible is my preferred platform that allows me to delve into books, dive into them, listen to them multiple times so I get more out of them each time. I've kind of been into a lot of the power of the mind. A couple of books that come to mind Psycho-Cybernetics, integrity by Martha Beck, a couple of others. The one that I've been reading or listening to just recently is a book from Dr Wayne Dyer called Change your Thoughts, change your Life. What he does is he goes through a complete breakdown of the doubt of Jing. It's a pretty fascinating that somebody 25 years ago had figured out a lot of this stuff out where it's our own mind, how we choose to process information and how we choose to think, which, interestingly enough, is kind of the basis for the work that I do in the suicide prevention realm. That is just. A lot of times people who get into that dark place aren't necessarily processing information in a normal, healthy way. Anything that I can do to help my mind and the minds of others around them to kind of break through that barrier, I do it.Nate Scheer:
That's awesome. I really appreciate how you bring up reading and learning from other people. It's interesting that there's so much out there, but I feel like, as military personnel or just being general A-type personalities, we feel like we have to fix it, we have to solve it. But many people have lived before us, so learning and learning from other people's mistakes, so we don't have to make them at all. That's an important thing. I want to give you a quick platform, before we dive into your story, to kind of go over the work that you're doing, where you're at and how you get out and get out to the people and get your story out there.Robert Swanson:
So I represent a program called Fight for Each Other. We started this probably about nine, 10 years ago. It was an outgrowth from the chief of staff of the Air Force's storyteller program. What he was kind of talking about was every airman has a story. And again, like you mentioned, how can we learn from other people's experiences? We had people getting up talking about sexual assault, suicide and a variety of other things domestic abuse, violence and the like and just kind of giving some people some insight into real life and real stories, and the program grew out of that Quite frankly. So we put together a panel of speakers. It started here on the island of Oahu and we had five bases and five speakers from each of the military services at Army, navy, air Force, marines and Coast Guard and we would go around and so we had representatives. We had a father who had lost a son, a daughter who had lost a father to suicide, a wife who had lost her husband and subsequently her son, and then some suicide survivors, because one of the holes that I saw in the suicide prevention work was we don't talk about the impact that it has on friends and family and we don't necessarily talk about our success stories, and we have tons of them and I just think highlighting those is just a really productive way to go forward. And 2016,. The DOD Suicide Prevention Office said this was their number one innovative suicide prevention program. 2018, acc did the same. We had a little bit of a hiatus during the pandemic and we're back on, so that's why I went out to Korea last year and I went out to Okinawa just a couple of months ago.Nate Scheer:
That's awesome. I'm glad you're getting back out there and I'm super glad, especially being a medical personnel. We're moving past COVID. But I definitely want to open up and try and start with the first story that I think was most impactful to me and you were starting to get after it, so it's a perfect segue is I feel like a lot of times when we do sit through the PowerPoint-driven suicide prevention type ones, it's usually focused on what's going on with the member and how can you spot the signs and things like that. But, like you had just mentioned, you don't talk about the ripple effect and how many other people. So there's one story that you told I'd love to hear it here and hopefully we can get it out of how it affected a Marine, I believe, and then his son and kind of from there. But I'll tee that up.Robert Swanson:
Okay, so the bottom line is that. So we had a series of speakers. One of them, her name was Donna Rank. This was over 25 years ago and her husband was a hard charge of Marine. He was that guy that if you looked at a Marine recruiting poster, he was the guy in the poster. This is the one that was outrun in six-minute miles 200,000 push-ups, 1,700 pull-ups just that guy. And meritoriously promoted below the zone twice, they sent him off to be a Marine drill instructor. I mean, this is like the duty if they come out of this doing well, they are given another promotion and they get sent to the assignment of their choice. And this guy had already decided that he was going to be a master drill instructor within three months. This is the kind of driven, motivated individual that just take no prisoners and is going to go out and conquer the world. And so he's out there, he's doing his job, and he got injured one day and they pulled him off the parade field and they gave him a job training young Marines how to swim. And so in his mind and in the mind of a lot of military people, personnel, we have goals, we have things that we want to achieve, and when they get derailed, sometimes it's hard to see past that situation and what the future can hold. And that, hey, if one door closes, a window opens that type of mentality. And so he started. He was pretty depressed. He started drinking. A lot of anger issues surfaced. He would come home at night and instead of taking off his uniform, getting the next uniform ready for the next day, he just throw it in a chair and he'd put on that wrinkled uniform and go to work the next day. And his wife saw there was like a tremendous change that was happening in his life and she went to the chain of command and she said look, something's wrong. My husband needs some help. This was 25 years ago. We've evolved a little bit since then, I hope. But his chain of command looked at her and said hey, look, your husband is a stellar Marine, he's got a great career and if you persist in this you're going to derail his career. Go home, little lady. And so she did. And then he more drinking, more anger, high risk behavior, hand over hand from one end of the swimming pool to the other, on an eye beam that went across the ceiling. Then he took his son to work, decided to turn him into a man, took him up to the high dive and threw a six year old son off the high dive and that was it. Mom had had enough, and so he goes home that night drinking. She said that she wants a divorce. He walked into the bedroom, grabbed the service revolver, pointed it at her head and she said go ahead, I don't care anymore. And instead of taking her life, he took a step backward, stood in the bathtub Good Marine doesn't want to make a mess right? And he shot himself in the head. She watched, her son watched, and the son looked up and the first thing he said is daddy was supposed to read me a story tonight. A couple of days later, she found the son in the closet with a rope around his neck and said what are you doing? He said I just want to go be with daddy. She spent the next 15 years of her life trying to keep her son alive medication, counseling, everything she could do. When he was 21 years old, she came home and found him hanging from a ceiling fan. I know that's a powerful story and I know that it's heartbreaking, but it's a true story and it's designed not designed, it just is. But it shows the impact that a suicide has on the lives of friends, family, coworkers and the like. One bullet took three lives. It took 25 years of her life, it took her son's life, it took her husband's life, and a single suicide impacts between 130 and 150 separate people in concentric circles, based on their proximity and relationship that they have with the person. That's what I'm talking about when I say the impact that it has on friends and family and everybody around them. I tell this story because it's important. Sometimes, when people get into that dark place, they think, oh, the world's going to be better without me. It's not true. It impacts so many lives in a negative way. The suicide rates for children of parents who take their own lives are 50 to 75% higher. If telling that story the real, no-crap impacts can give one person who's thinking about taking their life cause to hesitate, that's huge. That's one of the reasons we have that.Nate Scheer:
Yeah, that story was super powerful for me. One of the reasons for me starting the podcast is my grandmother lost her battle with mental health and ended up taking her own life. One of the things that impacts me the most is, I think, of her not being able to meet my kids and my kids being able to meet her. There's a lot of things that are negative about that, but the part of it that bums me out the most more than anything else is, like you said, the 130 to 150 people. She was this person that was so outgoing and so helpful and would talk to people at the grocery store. She would pull over and help you fix a tire. She would do anything. The thing that's so powerful to me, and just very devastating, I think, is that all those people that she would have smiled at at the grocery store, that she would have helped and lend a listening ear, or this long list of people she would have been able to help, she no longer can help. It's crazy to think of how far reaching that impact really is. We know that it's a small world. We bump into people at different places, so, yeah, it's very unfortunate that something like that ripples out. I think that really goes to your point where you were saying the person believes that solves it all. At that one time the world is better, everything's better when it's clearly proven that that's not the case, absolutely. So we're going to pivot over, I'm going to give you a chance to tell your core story, so we'll move on to the one, the next story, and let you go from there.Robert Swanson:
Okay. So, like I said, the two things I think we're missing. And don't get me wrong, I love the suicide prevention work that we're doing in the military. These guys are truly, truly they care and they're doing their best. But again, I like to highlight the impact that it has on friends and family and then to talk about our success stories. So my second story involves a young Air Force captain. He actually started off enlisted. I mean, you've ever met those people that just they're just on fire. You just know that they're going places. And this kid joined the Air Force when he was 18. He was honor grad or distinguished grad. Out of everything he did, got to his first assignment and he's, like you know, taking college classes. He's taken, you know, calculus and physics and chemistry and all the hard classes, because they had a program back then called Airman Education Commissioning Program. They send this. If you get selected, they send you to the college of your choice, pay all books and tuition.Nate Scheer:
They, they was that was it called bootstrap?Robert Swanson:
No, bootstrap was it was. It was different. This one, actually, you're on active duty, you're getting full pay, your job is to go to school and all books and tuition and at the end of it you get to cross over to the dark side and become an officer, which is which is huge, you know, because this, this young guy he had he had a wife and two kids and you know the, you know ROTC or anything that would require him to work full time and go to school was just a non-starter. So he worked his butt off. He got into the program I mean the you know E4, below the zone E5, first time testing, and in the mid 80s that was. That was tremendous. 20 Airmen, air Force wide, got picked up for this program. He was one of them, sent him off to Texas. A&m graduated summa cum laude. Then he went and jumped out of perfectly good airplanes for a couple of years working with Army special forces. I mean, this guy's motivated, he's out running all the time he's from jumping out of airplanes, kicking ass in school and his grades and his test scores were so good that as a second lieutenant they picked him up and sent him back to school Again, civilian institution, full ride scholarship to get a master's, 3.97 GPA Immediately rolled him over to get a PhD. I mean, this guy's career is on fire. There are so many you know beautiful wife, two great kids this guy's career is on fire and everybody who knew him wanted to change places with him. What they didn't see was that the PhD was not going well, that a lot of the things that they had decided to do, that he had decided to do it, wasn't working out. And you know, six months away from graduation he's sort of getting the oh, you may have to start over from scratch. Well, the Air Force only gives you a certain amount of time to knock out that advanced degree and, as you well know, the military mindset is, if you are sent to do something and you do not finish or you do not accomplish that objective, then you failed. And we're really good at just, you know, pulling out that big 10 pound sledgehammer and beating ourselves over the head with it. It just is maybe call it type A, call it military, whatever, but that's the way it was. And so he's working really hard at school. Wife is just riding him. It's not even. You know you're a terrible father. You never come home. You know you should be spending time with us. And he's like caught between a rock and a hard place. Kids are going like did daddy even come home last night? And this is what I was talking about earlier where the individual actually convinces themselves that the world would be better without them. Kids would get a new daddy, mom would get new insurance, she'd get a new husband, the Air Force would get a new officer. Everybody's problem goes away if this guy just checks out. And so, on the 21st of January 1998, this young captain that I'm talking about took 30 Flexerels, washed it down with a half bottle of whiskey and went up into the Uinta Mountains and decided that he was done. And he laid down in a snow bank and just kind of peaceful, knowing that he'd never wake up again. 12 hours later I woke up in the emergency room. My wife was standing beside me. It looked like she'd aged about a thousand years, and the first words out of her mouth were how could you do this to us, you, son of a bitch? She was angry, and you know what that's a normal reaction Anger, grief, a lot of other things that come to mind. Fortunately, I did not pass that night and so I was able to attempt to come back from that. They told me when they pulled me out, both my feet were frozen solid, both my hands. They said I'd probably lose my feet, I'd never walk again. I fought back from that I might lose my toes. I fought back from that. And all the while I have this PhD looming over my head and I'm talking to the doc and it's like, doc, I got to get back to school. I need a reason for living. I need a purpose. If you take this away from me, my career is over and I'm just, I'm done, I can't. You got to give me something and back then mental health was a little bit different than it is now. But the doc saw the wisdom and I'm really good at convincing people in sending me back to school and they did. I wasn't ready. I just I wasn't ready. So we fast forward. A year I finished the requirements for the PhD, I PCS'd. Now, if you look at things that cause stress in people's lives a death in the family, a divorce, being away from your kids, a new job, a new location, all the rest I'm going through a divorce. I don't get to see my kids. I've got a new job, I've moved to a new location and I'm working for, you know, quite frankly, a boss that was just there was a long handled screwdriver that went from his desk all the way to the little slot in my back and I was not, in my mind, living up to expectations because I wasn't meeting his timelines. And you know, you know, faced with the realities and I was the only guy in the entire United States Air Force that could do what I was doing because it was directly based on my PhD research so, overwhelmed again, stress was at an all time high. You know, on a test that you know, 300 means you need to go see somebody, I scored over 600. I was. I was like a, like a tight rubber band that was ready to snap and I did and I tried again and I woke up in the hospital again, they found me and I said hey guys, I got this big project at work. I need something to focus my energies on. You got to send me back to work. That's all. It's momentary lapse of reason, everything's good. And this time the doc looked at me and he says no, not this time. Whether you're going to stay in the Air Force or not is immaterial at this moment in time, what is important is that you get the help that you need, and so this is where I go in and I start talking about the fact that there are success stories out there. And I have a basic message when I'm talking, and one it's anybody could get into that dark place. You know, we look at demographics and we think it's our young airmen and soldiers and and the like. But you know, we we lost a full bird colonel at Isleson. We lost a two star down range. We we've lost a lot of people with this permanent solution to a temporary problem. And you know how do we, how do we capitalize and send that message? One it can happen to anybody. Two, it always, always, always gets better, no matter how dark your life gets, no matter how dark things seem, and you don't see a future. I didn't see a future, and yet just beyond that was, you know, an entire wonderful life. And the third thing is that there's actually tools out there that work, and that's what I found out. So I met a provider. We didn't get along, and so I ended up going to another provider and that's, that's okay. If you know, you have to have that, that trust relationship, and if it's not working for you, then then then see what you can do to improve things on your end. The first guy wanted to give me pills. They are lifesavers for some people. They didn't work for me, and so that also kind of points out to the fact that, in turn, in the mental health arena, if there was one cause for what the person was going through, then there would be one specific cure, and it's not. It doesn't work out that way, and so I ended up going into the office of a doctor, roderick Lilly, and I owe this man my life, and I'll tell you why. I walked into his office and he tossed my file across the desk and he just looked at me and he says take off, I can't help you. And I'm like dude, what are you talking about? That's your job. Your job is to fix me, send me back to work and and and the rest. And he says no, you're like a really smart guy. I've seen your test scores, I've seen your IQ. You're going to sit there in the chair and you're going to tell me everything I want to hear, and then you're going to go back to the same life that you had before. You're going to go back to the life where you get home at 10 o'clock at night, exhausted, pour yourself a glass of whiskey, turn on that sad song that reminds you of the one that got away, and drink your whiskey alone in the dark, and then in the morning you're going to get up in the morning and you're going to find yourself at the bottom of the shower sobbing because you're so afraid to get up and face the day. Because it's just the same stuff day after day after day. And if that's the kind of life you want, you know more power to you, because that's the life you've created. Or is it possible that you could give? You could give me a chance. You could. You could maybe trust me a little bit. We can build a relationship. What would life be like if I could get you to the point, with us working together, where you actually looked forward to the day? How wonderful would that be. And I was shocked because nobody had ever offered me that option before. You know. They said you need help, you need this, you need that. And once I surrendered to the process and opened up, the results were amazing. It was just I won't say overnight, but it was pretty damn quick and the results were absolutely. I had no idea that it was possible to turn things around that way it was. It was. It was phenomenal, shocking. I derailed my career. I was a young captain. They pulled my clearance. Now they say if you seek help you will not lose your clearance. To the best of my knowledge, that is correct. I didn't seek help. In time I demonstrated that I clearly wasn't in the position to safeguard this nation's secrets. However, as a result of the therapy and the support of family, friends, coworkers and my my and Dr Roderick, lilly and the rest, I got my clearance back. I got promoted three more times. I ended up finally retiring as a full bird colonel. I spent another almost 20 years on active duty, leading, managing and motivating some of the finest men and women this nation has to offer. Tremendous success story. I'm remarried to a beautiful lady, I've run over 30 marathons, I have five degrees, to include a PhD and a couple of master's degrees, and it just all of the things that I was able to do and accomplish is just phenomenal. Now you know people would say well, rob, why would you get up there and be vulnerable? Because what I did is I just got up in front of everybody and I opened the kimono and I said you know, I was weak, I needed some help. You know, if a person's running down the street and they, they fall and they break their arm, they get an x-ray, they get a cast. Six weeks later they take the cast off a little bit of physical therapy and nobody thinks anything about it. But mental health issues not only do we have the stigma attached, people who don't understand think, oh, this guy's weak or this guy's whatever. And yet one of the things that I've found is there's a tremendous amount of strength in vulnerability, in opening up and just saying, look, I'm a human being. And I think that when senior leaders get up and admit, you know, hey, look, I'm a human being, I was vulnerable, I think it gives a lot, of, a lot more people permission to do the same. Our young airmen can look up and say, hey, wow, that, that, that, that crazy old colonel got up there and he was okay and he survived. And look at his life. Now Maybe I can do the same, because I'll tell you, 50 years ago we didn't talk about cancer. 25 years ago, someone in your family got AIDS. You didn't talk about it, because you know how they got AIDS. We're curing both now. Why aren't we opening up this dialogue and being honest and finding ways to remove the stigma attached to talking about this and getting help? You know, regularly when I talk to my audiences I ask them who here, you know, raise your hand. First question I ask them is who here has been impacted by suicide? Over 50% of the audience every single time A friend, a family, a co-worker or something like that. And then I said now, who here thinks that I'm weak Because I attempted to take my life? And now I'm standing up in front of all of you and talking about this? So when I came forward with my story, they asked if they could go and contact some of my former coworkers. And I'm like, yeah, because they're looking at what is the impact on friends and family and co-workers and the like. And a couple of days later I got an email from a friend of mine and he said Rob, I've been waiting 15 years to ask this question. Is there anything that I could have done to prevent you from doing what you did that day? And I was shocked. I had never thought about the impact that I had on his life, but he lived for 15 years with the guilt associated with what could I have done? And with our suicide prevention. We've got our acronyms. We love it Ace. We come up with all kinds of great ways to reach out and assist people and we come up with lists of symptoms that we should be watching for giving away your property, marital, legal or relationship issues, depression, despondency, talking about killing yourself. I had none of them. I was the funniest guy on the planet. Every time somebody said something, I'd make a joke. Quite frankly, I think I was funnier than Robin Williams.Nate Scheer:
Yeah, he was one I was going to mention at some point of all the celebrity ones I'm not much into tabloids and things like that, but that was one of the ones that was most difficult for me, for sure. He was trying to make everyone else laugh and take care of everyone, and so that goes to show, I mean, really can impact anyone and you really know what other people are walking through in their personal lives Exactly.Robert Swanson:
And quite frankly, the point there, the takeaway, is that sometimes people who are in the deepest pain are best at hiding it. He just pushed it down, compartmentalized or whatever, and I was good at that. So people would say why would you get up and admit you're vulnerable? Why would you get up and do this? I wore the uniform for 34 and a half years and you don't do that unless you really love the men and women you serve with and the work that you do. And I served with the finest men and women this nation had to offer. They raised their right hand. They said I promise to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and they're just serving a cause higher than themselves. Now, when I did that so you know an example of that I'm downrange 2010, running weather operations for the war, and I'm in charge of the the Aerostat deployment program, and I know damn well the work that I did resulted in men coming home in coach and not in cargo. So, in addition to everything else that I was able to do, I was able to go on and continue saving lives. You know I talk about. You know when I'm, when I'm there, I was living in the big warehouses. I wasn't living in the you know feel great officer quarters. And I go in at night and here's a bunch of kids kids with short hair playing, shoot them up video games on their computers and the next minute these young Marines are locked and loaded, full battle rattle in their out garden convoys. And you know, dang it. My heart just swells with pride when I see those things. And not to you know, not to you know, just to draw contrast, not to throw my son under the bus, but you know, around that time I'm like, son, hey, your birthday is coming up, what do you want for your birthday? I had twos are coming up, coming out 50 bucks, I could upgrade. And I'm like, okay, I'm on the phone. You know, you do realize you're 25 years old, right, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's just a different perspective from somebody who hadn't, hadn't served. And that's why, you know, when I get up, it is such an important message for me to say that. You know, I want people to know how incredibly are to their friends, their family, their coworkers, their unit, their service, their nation, and to me, and that's why I do this work, that's why I travel around, it's why I give these presentations and it's why I just open up and say look guys, it can happen to anybody. I was one of the most hard charging, motivated people I've ever met. It always gets better. I mean, my gosh, you know, on weekends I drive around in a 1965 convertible Corvette, stingray numbers matching four to five. I mean, you know, look at the life that I have because I stuck around, because I had that ability. When I do the presentations, oftentimes there's people who come up afterwards and these are the most valuable conversations. One was a two stars wife, she turns out. She went and sought help afterwards and talked about the results that she had in her life. The other day a young Marine female Marine came up to me and she said she's had two attempts in the last year and we talked about it and she had tears in her eyes and she said this was probably the first time in all the counseling and all the trainings that she truly felt like somebody cared. And I'm here to tell every member of your audience that I truly care. If just one person at each presentation comes out and just gets has pause, you know they're having these dark thoughts and they're thinking to themselves that they don't want to go on and the world's better off without them. I mean, when I talk to the audience, you know I say look, if you're in this dark place, let's talk. You know we regularly have mental health professionals in the background, because some of this is raw and they may you know it may trigger, and so we make sure that we got people there for them to talk to. Some people are going. I have no clue what he's talking about. Why would anybody ever want to take their own life? Other people have people in their lives that they see are in the dark place. You know, I hope this podcast gets out to spouses as well, because we're tough military people. We're good, we'll take care of everybody else, but we're good, we don't have to worry about that. And yet the spouse is the one that truly gets to see what the heck is going on and possibly do that. You know the story I related to earlier with Donna and her husband. You know, after her husband took his life, she said hey, guys, yeah, you said no career or I could derail his career. Well, no Marine, no career. How simple is that? So now, if you have concerns, questions or whatever, feel free to reach out. I put my career back together, I got promoted three more times, I'm retired in Hawaii and I'm living the life. I'm gonna add something that I didn't talk about in Okinawa because it hadn't occurred yet. I talk about the impact it has on friends and family, and children of parents who take their own lives are 50 to 75% more likely to follow in their parents' footsteps. When I attempted, I broke trust with my family. It took a lot of time to try to win that trust back with my coworkers. They're walking around on eggshells like, oh my gosh, what are we gonna do to set this guy off? My family? My son was 13, my younger one, my older one was 16, and it damaged our relationship. I don't know if it was the suicide attempt, I don't know if it was the divorce, but all of that has an impact. And probably around the age of 20, my younger son started drinking heavily. By the time he was 30, he was doing drugs and on February 16th of this year I lost my son and we buried him five days later. I don't know how what I did impacted him. I don't know, and I'm not gonna beat myself up with that 10 pound sledgehammer and try to figure out what I could have done differently, because I did the best that I could back then. However, there are a lot of people out there with young kids and family and friends, and if any of the work that I do can prevent that from happening to anybody else because, while it wasn't an actual suicide, he died because of the drugs and he left a big gaping hole in the lives of his friends, his family, his coworkers and everybody else, and I'm gonna miss that kid, but it renewed my passion and my desire to continue doing this work. I don't know how many lives I'm gonna touch, but it is so important that we get this message out that they are important, every single person in this audience. You are important to your friends, your family, your coworkers, your unit, your service, your nation and to me and, quite frankly, to you, nate, for making sure that this word gets out and positively impacts people. So if you're in that dark place, let's talk. If you're not in that dark place, but you know somebody, there are tools available and there are lots of people you can go to, because we gotta get comfortable being uncomfortable either confronting or turning them over to somebody else If you think they may be a danger to themselves or others. Maybe your friend's gonna hate you. Oh, you're hurting my career. Okay, so what? If you're alive, I'm good with that. You can hate me for the rest of your life, as long as you're still alive, because I care about you. So I'm not a counselor, I'm not a psychiatrist, I'm not a chaplain. I'm just an old guy with a bunch of Ben there who's done that T-shirts who can relate. I'm the guy who can look you in the face and say I know what you're going through because I've been there. And that's pretty much all I got, buddy.Nate Scheer:
Yeah, it's a powerful message. Sorry to hear about that, but it does really make me think about the why. And I remember when I was gonna start the podcast I think I had maybe recorded one episode when you had come out and when you were talking through that kind of gave me a little bit of chills because your line of if one person is reached, it's already enough. And so I remember thinking through my first episodes and I was worried about when, as if, I mess up, when, as if I stumble, when, as if the order's not right, when, as if my production's not good, and it kind of just hit me at one point. It doesn't matter, one person that connects to a story, connects to a guest, a viewer, myself, whoever it is, one person for the hours of work that I put in will be all worth it and kind of that honor and whatnot, back to my grandmother and whatnot. But yeah, that's such a great message and it's just kind of, like you said, refuels the fire, because I was kind of on the fence and I wasn't sure and I saw you and I knew that it had to keep pushing on. But I do want to touch on two things that you touched on just a second ago. One is first. One is mental fitness. So we're going to be calling mental health on this show mental fitness. I heard it used the other day and I feel like it's such a powerful thing. I think words are really important. They can be very fine and minute details that are different, but words are important and words have meaning and so, kind of, like you had said, you're not getting to the worst possible point, we can be proactive. And you mentioned it briefly where you said when you're going to run and you fall down, you go and you get help for that and then you leave, and so that should be the same thing with this mental fitness. Mental health has this negative connotation it's drugs, it's appointments, it's whatever. But mental fitness like if someone asks you, hey, what are you working on today Like people openly say I'm working on back and buys, I'm doing three sets of 12. And it's like you know, there's a conversation on the reps and what kind of machine and you can have the discussion, but on the flip side, no one for some reason, which is part of the show. And you know, in the pilot episode of this one I kind of go into the why of why this came about, but that's one of the things to get through clear the stigma, have these difficult conversations because it should be the same. It should be the same as I tried a new yoga routine, I tried a new meditation, I walked in nature, I you know the list goes on and on. But why can't those conversations be had? And so really gonna keep pushing the mental fitness and the other aspect of mental fitness I really like is it's ongoing. For some reason. There's this feeling of mental health. You're supposed to check in and you kind of set it, even from your own perspective, where it was. I was supposed to get fixed and I was supposed to go back to work. But it's supposed to be ongoing. You're gonna have good days, you're gonna have bad days, you're gonna be whatever. So mental fitness, I think, is a really accurate thing. Where you're ongoing, you're not waiting for the worst possible scenario, you're upkeeping of the things you're doing the same way, like you don't go run on the treadmill one day and you're like I'm good, I'm never gonna run again. That's bizarre, you'd never do that. So I think our mental fitness or whatever we do for physical aspects, physical healing, physical routines need to be blended closer in with the mental. I mean, the mind is a part of your body. And then the other thing I wanted to touch on is the vulnerability. You getting up there and being able to connect with people is so powerful. So I've had a few experiences as a flight commander and sometimes I feel like the divide between E&O even though a lot more enlisted are very smart and have degrees they're still that kind of odd divide between the two. And I noticed in my flights I ended up doing a quick intro which they kind of tell you to do hey, this is about me, these are my priorities or whatnot and so I do that one. It's very brief and it's quick and it's not very in depth. But then three or four months, once I've known the flight a little bit longer and I understand and I feel more comfortable because I wanna freak them out on. Like the first week I go into the passing of my grandmother and my bonus dad and my divorce and custody battles and shared custody and all these things I go into and I specifically say this isn't to be like this weird negative Nancy where I'm just gonna list all these negative things that have been through. But the point of that is, if you need to talk about something, let's go. I will do one of two things. I will try to solve it, because I'm the flight commander and I should try to get after that. Or let me know, you just need to vent, you need to do whatever, and then I will listen. And those are the two big ones for me. I'm either gonna try to solve it, we'll go over to the chaplain, we'll go to finance whatever that solution is, or you're handling it, but you just need to avoid some concerns. But to your point, the connection of vulnerability was way greater than ever before. After that, I had people come up and talk to me, tell me how they appreciated opening up. They said, oh, I thought you were this way. Now I realize you're really like this. They're like, oh, you're a robot, no, you're a human. Like yeah, yeah, I'm a human, we're all human, that's the way it works. And so those are really the two big things that really connected to me from your talk. There is the vulnerability connections are so powerful and then just the ongoing aspects of mental fitness.Robert Swanson:
And you bring up a good point. I mean the mental fitness. It's a continuum right. Wouldn't it be much better if we got people long before they got to that dark place? And you bring up something else and I'm gonna toss this out, because you talked about your intro as a flight commander and stuff. People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care and caring for your people. When my friend said, what could I have done, he didn't. I gave no signs, but he did know I was going through a divorce. He did know I was estranged from my kids and so, knowing your airman such that you know when something isn't going the same in their life, when something's a little bit off, and this goes up and down the chain. It doesn't just go to the people who work for you. If your boss is at squadron commander's walking down the hallway and you can tell he's having a bad day, hey, boss, you doing okay and check in with them because that's what is going to occur. But know your people. You may not display all the signs that we're told to look for, but know your people well enough to know when they're not having a good day or when they're not having a good time or good life or whatever. And just that question hey, how are you doing Sometimes? Lets them know that you know somebody actually does care about them.Nate Scheer:
Absolutely. I got a few questions. I'll try to keep it brief Okay Coming up on 50 minutes, but I wanted to ask a few things. What's one thing you wish more people knew about? Mental fitness, and why is that important?Robert Swanson:
One thing I think the most powerful thing is you can have a good life, not just surviving the ability to thrive and enjoy and get up and look forward to the day. That was something I had never considered up until I met Dr Roderick Lilly.Nate Scheer:
Absolutely Okay. Next one you might have touched on this, but just to drive it home. What do you think is one of the most common misconceptions about mental health?Robert Swanson:
That it's going to hurt your career, that you're going to lose your clearance, you're going to derail your career, you're not going to be deployable and all these other things. And yet, for the most part, yeah, chain of command gets notified under certain circumstances, but there's other venues that allow you to do that. But the bottom line is, when we talk about our success stories, how about if I get a few airmen that say, hey, I sought help and I'm fine? You know, one of the most powerful things a leader in a unit can do is sign out and say, by the way, I'm going over to my appointment and showing that he also, or she also, is having a rough time and they're getting the help that they need. My gosh, they give everybody in the unit permission to do the same. How powerful is that?Nate Scheer:
Yeah, that's the definition of leading by example. That would be really good to see. That's a good point for everyone out there. Keep that in mind, okay, last question Can you speak to any ways societal norms or attitudes or stigmas related to mental health have changed in recent years?Robert Swanson:
I think. One, the quality care has gotten better. But two, people realize that there's a lot of hurting people out there and one of the things you know we see the demographics and the rising rates of suicide and teens and young adults, and a lot of it is actually based on lack of connection. You know we claim we're the most connected. You know we got social media and everything else. We're all connected, we're all friends, and absolutely nobody's life is as good as your friend's Facebook page. Hmm, you know each photo. Yeah, exactly. So you know what is the. It's just the realization that you know we are lonely, we aren't connected as much as we thought we were, and you know people being able to reach out. I've heard of lives that are saved because somebody posted the despondent post on Facebook and people came to their rescue. So I think attitudes are changing, shifting. I think there's a keen interest in the challenges that some of our younger folks are facing, whether it's a sexual identity crisis or you know a variety of other things that that are our young people are going through and we're becoming more. You know school bullying and we're becoming more sensitive to that and the impact that it has and the fact that people do take their lives when they feel isolated and alone and not understood.Nate Scheer:
Absolutely. So I'm going to summarize some key takeaways. For me, vulnerability is powerful. I know Bernay Brown and you know other authors have really touched on that, but that's a super important thing and we heard it from RealLife Stories today To you can have success after you know some challenges with mental health and other things like that and, worst case, you know, if you do have challenges with your clearance or your career, you're still alive. So that's much more important. And then I think the last one is really how important and thought-provoking the ripple effect is for the 130 to 150 people being affected by a suicide. So those are super important. So I had to touch on those again to kind of ponder over those. I encourage anyone that's having any trouble or anything reach out to myself or anyone else that you know can get you help or get some stuff squared away. But finally, sir, I wanted to give you one last one what message or takeaway do you hope listeners will take from today's podcast?Robert Swanson:
Just really simple. You're important, you're important and the world is a better place with you in it. Period.Nate Scheer:
Absolutely Well. Thank you, sir. Thanks for coming out, as always. If you or someone you know in the Air Force or even civilian community needs mental health, there are multiple different resources out there. I'm not going to be all encompassing, but you got military one source, you got chaplains, you have wingman friends, mental health professionals, and in the US they do have the new hotline. It's 988. It can be called and text, which I didn't know about until I was in a little more research today, so you can actually text 988 and have a text conversation and or phone conversation. If you're at the darkest point or a dark point, you need help. But yeah, if you need help, reach out. But that's all I got today, thank you.