Abstract: Determinants of Suicide Prevention Resource Utilization: An Online Ethnography of a Forum Targeting Air Force Members and Veterans (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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662P Determinants of Suicide Prevention Resource Utilization: An Online Ethnography of a Forum Targeting Air Force Members and Veterans

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Josh Bylotas, MSW, Social Work PhD Student, Colorado State University
Background and Purpose: Suicide remains a leading cause of death among veterans and military personnel, with veteran suicide occurring at disproportionately higher rates than civilian counterparts. Limited research has been conducted that investigates the role of social media in facilitating suicide prevention among this population. This online ethnography explores an online community for Air Force members and veterans’ collective interpretation and engagement with suicide and mental health prevention resources. Further consideration was given to communication of various stigma and barriers that may inhibit resource utilization. This study was conducted with the juxtaposition of two modern epistemological approaches to suicide: the cultural-structural theory of suicide and the interpersonal theory of suicide.

Methods: This online ethnography completed analysis of publicly available archival data ranging from 2020-2021 located on a social media forum for current and former U.S. Air Force members. Data collection solely consisted of archival posts made under online pseudonyms and no direct contact or engagement was made with forum members. The qualitative analysis implemented an observation of 100 archival posts and 3,211 comments addressing the topic of suicide. Research design was guided by the LiLEDDA method, with the implementation of inductive coding processes including open, descriptive, and pattern techniques. Posting content ranged from text to images and video. Postings were copied directly from the online forum and transferred to NVivo qualitative software for coding.

Results: Analysis yielded four primary themes: 1) fear of an unknown future, which manifests through uncertainty in where organizational needs supersede an individual’s ability to continue military service. This is compounded by fear of losing either stability or status because of seeking out support. 2) Supportive community processes, in which online communication subverts cultural and structural barriers to facilitate engagement and connection. 3) A shifting mental health culture, where stigma is driven by structural factors rather than internalized beliefs of weakness. Active attempts are made to encourage engagement with available resources. 4) Resource strain, where limitations across systems facilitate individual stressors.

Conclusion and Implications: Findings support the need for incorporating cultural and structural perspectives when addressing suicide prevention among military members and veterans. Forum members seek out online support for the benefits of shared community understanding, absent the cultural and structural demands that may perpetuate various forms of stigma. The implications for this research study include a highlighted need for further study of digital spaces and interventions that leverage the use of social media. Developing prevention strategy that reflects systemic factors influencing suicide is critical.