Rocked by loss, Team Wyoming uses TSA program to help heal

Tuesday, September 20, 2022
Wyoming summit group photo

The TSA Wyoming family is resilient.

In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, they’re courageously talking about how they’re coping with multiple losses this spring from various causes, among them, suicide. They believe having an honest, ongoing conversation about mental health is the best way forward.

“It hasn’t been until recently this has become personal,” said Casper-Natrona County International Airport (CPR) Master TSA Instructor Annamaria Coons about the losses she’s sustained at work and in her private life. “In Wyoming, everybody’s told to ‘cowboy up.’ That’s where we have to open it up a little bit and say, ‘It’s okay to talk about it.’”

TSA Wyoming Operations Program Analyst Kelsey Vine agreed, saying, “The cowboy culture is about being self-sufficient, so we’re fighting that mentality and bringing ‘one team – one fight’ into it.”

Following the losses, employees were immediately supported with county and agency counseling services, including the TSA Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which uses Federal Occupational Health services exclusively for federal employees. The team put mission first and went back to work, but this time with extra care for each other.

“I thought it would be important for the caretakers to learn how to care for themselves before giving that light to other people,” said CPR Lead TSA Officer Acacia Phillips, a certified QPR gatekeeper trained to question, persuade and refer.

Along with TSA Manager Christopher Greear and Human Resources Specialist Lindsey Cruse, Phillips organized a day-long summit, inviting key speakers from the EAP and the county along with team members who wanted to be part of the solution.

“We've all had personal experience with (suicide),” said TSA Officer Mike Fulton about his involvement in the workshop. “I want to try to be someone who could positively change someone's life and provide assistance when the need occurs."

That help can be as basic as heartfelt conversation with a friend who is going through a rough patch.

“If you see somebody who is struggling, let them know you see them and you want to help,” said Phillips. “Our employees across the board and across the country have exceptionally difficult jobs. A lot of the issues come from people feeling ignored.”

“You don’t even have to get involved if you don’t want to,” said Coons, who is passionate about destigmatizing mental health. “If you see a change in somebody, talk to a supervisor, a manager or somebody who knows how to find a gatekeeper.”

“By referring them to somebody who can help makes them feel seen and understood,” agreed Phillips. “It’s validation for that person.”

The question, persuade, refer conversation is not professional counseling. Simple by design, it’s face-to- face interaction meant as a lifeline. People are trained to recognize a crisis and the warning signs that someone may be contemplating suicide. QPR gatekeepers have an enhanced awareness and familiarity with QPR action steps for initiating an intervention and a response by mental health professionals. 

TSM Coons photo
Casper-Natrona County International Airport TSA Master Training Instructor Annamaria Coons wears a yellow lanyard signifying her role as a qualified gatekeeper. (Photo by Kelsey Vine)

“Think of it like CPR,” said Danelle Ruffin, program manager for TSA’s Suicide Prevention Program. “It’s a lifeline from a friend who takes the time to listen, and when needed, refers the person to other resources that can provide further help.”

Team Wyoming is benefiting from enhanced QPR conversations and continues to recover by reaching out with quarterly meetings. Vine points out the EAP provides an array of services most people don’t know about such as financial and family counseling.

“I keep flyers in my back pocket for employees who have been struggling,” said Vine. “I tell them, ‘You don’t have to tell the person on the phone anything other than you need assistance and they’ll connect you with someone. Do you know you can receive six free sessions?’”

In an effort to be visible to employees, stakeholders and passengers, Wyoming gatekeepers wear yellow lanyards as conversation starters. It’s their way of saying, “I care. You can feel safe talking with me.” Employees get tips and are linked to helpful resources by their monthly newsletter and the team is hard at work solidifying gatekeeper representation at each of the state’s nine federalized airports.

A resilient Team Wyoming is getting by with a little help from their yellow lanyard friends one conversation at a time.

“Wyoming exemplifies what caring for the workforce looks like. The enhancements implemented to their program were the extra steps needed for the mental health of their colleagues,” said Ruffin.

“Establishing a workforce who genuinely cares and responds for each other is the backbone of organizational trust and overall mission success, said TSA Wyoming Assistant Federal Security Director Oscar De Los Reyes, echoing Administrator Pekoske’s shared vision of care for TSA employees in the Administrator’s Intent 2.0. “TSA Wyoming has taken tremendous steps in improving the local Gatekeeper program, and I am extremely proud of all the work this team has put into reestablishing the significance and importance of their assignment.”

By Karen Robicheaux, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs