Last week’s shooting in Florida again prompted a conversation about what and who is to blame for mass shootings in the U.S., particularly in schools. Is it lack of proper mental health care? Gun laws that enable easy access to firearms and ammunition? Toxic masculinity? Media coverage of shooters? A culture that glorifies violence?
These are good discussions to have. I hope someday soon they evolve into actual policy changes. We are, after all, on our second decade and fourth presidential administration since Columbine.
While we’re having the conversation, though, let’s talk about another gun violence problem: Guns are killing hundreds of Idahoans each year. Not in the hands of mass shooters, gang members, drug dealers or domestic abusers. In our own hands.
Last year, 214 people in Idaho killed themselves with a firearm, according to state records. That’s more than the number of deaths from automobile crashes. Guess how many people were killed in gun homicides? Fifteen.
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You won’t see headlines about those suicides, because trained journalists almost never cover them. There are a few reasons for this: Mainly, it’s because suicide is a public health problem that can be exacerbated by irresponsible news coverage. We hope that by not covering individual suicides, we can prevent more from happening.
The downside of that sensitivity is that our communities aren’t forced to confront the full reality of gun violence. And we’re not forced to have conversations about what causes suicide and what lawmakers could do to prevent it.
Mental illness & violence
We know that mental illness alone does not cause people to commit mass shootings. Logic bears that out: A huge share of Americans have mental illness, but a huge share of Americans don’t shoot each other. People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than to be perpetrators.
An article in The New Yorker in 2014 cataloged study after study that found a “quite small and far from predictive” link between mental illness and shootings. The relationship between psychological problems and violence only became significant when other factors were added in, such as drug or alcohol abuse and a history of being bullied or victimized.
But there is a strong tie between self-inflicted violence and mental illness — though again, the vast majority of people with mental illness never try to kill themselves.
“According to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], between 21 and 44 percent of those who commit suicide had previously exhibited mental-health problems — as indicated by a combination of family interviews and evidence of mental-health treatment found at the scene, such as psychiatric medications — while between 16 and 33 percent had a history of psychiatric treatment,” the 2014 New Yorker article said. “[M]any studies have shown an even higher risk of suicide among the mentally ill, up to 10 to 20 times higher than the general population for bipolar disorder and depression, and 13 times higher for schizophrenia-spectrum disorders.”
What else is causing our gun-violence problem in Idaho? Geographic isolation? Poor insurance coverage? Doctor and counselor shortages? An Idahoan and Western attitude that celebrates “independence” but doesn’t encourage people to proactively address an illness?
About 60 to 65 percent of suicides in Idaho are by firearm — higher than the national average. And of all the firearm deaths in Idaho, 88 percent are suicides.
Would those statistics change if guns were more tightly controlled?
What if we could act on red flags?
Other states have passed laws that are getting a lot of attention since last week’s shooting. They’re called “red flag laws.” Idaho’s neighbors Oregon and Washington have them on the books, as does California. The laws allow courts to temporarily take guns from people who pose a danger to themselves or others. Similar to involuntary commitments, they walk a fine line between protecting a person’s safety and taking away their civil rights.
In the first state to pass a “red flag law,” there is evidence that it helped prevent suicides, according to the New York Times. “In Connecticut, where 762 gun seizure cases were carried out from 1999 to June 2013, a study by researchers at Duke University estimated that the law had averted approximately one suicide for every 10 to 11 gun seizure cases,” the newspaper reported. What would happen if Idaho passed such a law?
There is plenty else we can do to help people save their own lives.
What if everyone from Boise to Bonners Ferry had easy, affordable access to a psychiatrist or therapist — whether in person or via live video? What if we started talking about mental illness in the same way we talk about cancer?
There is no shame in trying to get help for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or any other disorder. If you’re experiencing a mental illness, you have a health condition. It’s like a congenital heart defect or diabetes. It’s not your fault, and trying to fix it DIY can make it worse.
If you want help but can’t afford it, or can’t find a provider, try calling your local community health center, behavioral health crisis center or the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline. Or, use the Self Rescue Manual for possible referrals.
There is hope
Many people and organizations in Idaho are making an effort to reduce our suicide rate.
The Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, in the first quarter of 2017, took 2,034 calls and texts from people who were contemplating suicide or just needed a supportive ear. More than 200 of the callers were teenagers.
The Speedy Peterson Foundation has supported a number of projects to help prevent suicide and promote mental health care.
And a project called Sources of Strength aims to keep children from ever reaching the point of considering suicide.
“Young people have strengths already,” said Kim Kane, manager of the Suicide Prevention Program at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. “They can focus on healthy coping mechanisms.”
Kane adds that when we talk about suicide, “We talk too much about what the risk is, and not the fact that people get better and that there’s hope and help for everyone.”
We have a long way to go, and a lot of deaths to prevent. That’s probably going to take funding for better mental health care. A willingness to stop pretending that guns are just for hunting and self-defense. And a dramatic change in our culture.
Instead of treating mass shootings, murders and suicides as discrete problems, let’s start talking about solutions for all of them.
IF SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS IN EMOTIONAL CRISIS
Call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HELLO to 208-398-4357.
Warning signs to watch for:
▪ Talking about wanting to die.
▪ Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
▪ Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
▪ Talking about being a burden to others.
▪ Increasing use of alcohol or drugs.
▪ Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly.
▪ Sleeping too little or too much.
▪ Withdrawing or isolating themselves.
▪ Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
▪ Extreme mood swings.
Other things you can do to help:
▪ Do not leave the person alone.
▪ Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
▪ Listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
▪ Be nonjudgmental. Don’t debate. Don’t lecture on the value of life.
▪ Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
▪ Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
▪ Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
▪ Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.
▪ Get help by calling the hotline or visiting Suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Source: Suicide Prevention Lifeline