The Governor of Idaho has signed Senate Bill 1254 into law, the bill to allow people with Idaho’s enhanced concealed carry permit to bring guns on Idaho public college and university campuses. This may be a Second Amendment win, but I’m not sure any suicide prevention experts testified on the additional risk ready access to firearms represents.
Mind you, I’m a defender of Second Amendment rights. But I hope not an uninformed one. In case Idaho voters were not aware, here are few well-established facts about firearms and suicidal people.
First, firearms are the leading method of suicide in Idaho and the United States. Second, access to firearms is associated with increased risk for suicide by that method. Third, suicide by firearm is preventable.
Global studies have confirmed that reducing ready access to the means of suicide lowers suicide rates, e.g., removing carbon monoxide from coal gas in England, anti-jumping screens on tall buildings and high bridges, and removing human-lethal pesticides in Sri Lanka.
To reduce suicides among 18-21 year old soldiers, in 2006 the Israeli Defense Force disseminated suicide prevention information and ordered soldiers to leave their firearms on base, rather than take them home over the weekend. This simple intervention reduced suicide rates by 40%.
Now that the Idaho bill has become law everyone concerned about preventing suicidal self-directed violence, including suicide-motivated violence toward others, needs to address how to mitigate the additional risk soon to be introduced to college life in Idaho. (For an excellent read on suicide-driven violence toward others, read The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide, by Dr. Thomas Joiner.)
Facts to consider in going forward:
1. Gun owners are no more mentally ill than non-gun owners. But the vast majority of people (95%+) who take their own lives are suffering from an untreated or under-treated mental illness. In the case of college students this illness is typically anxiety, depression, or both, and often complicated by substance abuse. Thought disorders also emerge in college years. Sadly, depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders are not rare, and the typical onset of these illnesses is in young adults, and may be accompanied by suicidal ideation.
2. College health risk surveys show that approximately 10% of students report seriously thinking about suicide over the past 12 months. This figure does not include staff and faculty.
3. With some exceptions, college and university counseling departments are sorely understaffed and have very little time for marketing to, and recruitment of, those students at risk of suicide. Most departments can barely deal with their waiting lists, and very few have psychiatrists available for assessment and medication consultation. Thus, most suicidal college students go untreated.
4. Suicide is preventable, including by firearm. Reduce access to the means of suicide and you reduce suicide.
5. Prevent suicide and you prevent murder-suicides.
Debating gun control produces mostly heat, not light. Gun safety is another matter. Excellent “light” on the subject of gun safety and eans restriction can be found at http://www.meansmatter.org – Harvard University’s School of Public Health’s web site.
So what can we do now that some students will carry firearms on campus in Idaho?
If you are a parent and if your child gets into trouble emotionally, make sure he or she is safe. Visit them. Question them. Bring them home. If they have a firearm – or access to a roommate’s firearm – do whatever it takes to make sure you child does not have access to any weapon when they are in personal crisis.
Do not assume they will voluntarily get the care they need. If your child is male, you can pretty much be assured he will ignore social marketing efforts that ask him to ask for help if he is troubled. And don’t assume your daughter will either.
Suicidal people of either gender typically never ask for help during the early onset of a depression and, as time passes, the odds they will seek help and ask for it can decrease. We call it the “help negation effect” – which basically translates hopelessness into inaction as in, “I’m so hopeless no one and nothing can help me, so there’s no sense in trying.”
Or, if they do seek help they often stop at the slightest obstacle, e.g., “I don’t know where the counseling center is.” Bottom line: Assume nothing, and never choose to wait-and-see when you can act.
Family members, faculty, staff, and fellow students can be trained to recognize distress signals and how to safely intervene. Some Idaho schools are doing this now, and hundreds of other campuses all over the country are stepping up with programs.
If it was up to me – and if they’d just let me rule the world for a few minutes – suicide prevention training would be mandatory for all college freshman during orientation week, AND all faculty and employees, with annual refresher training to assure ongoing competence.
Do the math. You have 10,000 students. If 10% are going to consider suicide in one school year, that’s 1,000 students. Count up your counseling center treatment staff and divide this number into 1,000 and then give each student 10 sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Guess what? You are long on students and short on staff. Way short.
I did this math with an unnamed major university with 40,000 students. They’d had five recent student suicides. When asked, I was told they had five counseling staff. Five staff for 4,000 potentially suicidal students each year.
This was not like trying to build bricks without straw, but trying to build bricks without mud or water, and I said as much in my keynote. I was later told that some in leadership positions where “disturbed” by my remarks. I said, “Good! Then my work here is done!” They later hired a platoon of new therapists.
Back to guns.
Every gun owner needs to practice the 11th Commandment of responsible firearm ownership: “Keep firearms from persons in distress.”
This means that if you are gun owner and you know someone is in crisis, you don’t loan them your weapon. You keep it locked up. If you are a college student with a firearm on campus, you never let that weapon get into the hands of someone whose life, studies, or relationships are not going well. A friend never lends a weapon to a troubled friend.
And, if you are a mental health professional – or any health professional – take a little time to learn how to counsel clients on restricting access to the means of suicide. Called “Counseling on Access top Lethal Means” the program was developed by my friend and colleague, Elaine Frank at Dartmouth. The training is free and can be found at http://training.sprc.org/course/description.php#course3. Every college counselor in Idaho should take it now!
Here’s another fact that can be leveraged to prevent suicide. Suicidal people planning to use a firearm don’t easily switch to a different method, and frustrating access to a gun often produces relief, e.g., “Someone cares that I live and is willing to frustrate me to prove it.”
Reducing access, even for a few minutes, hours, days, or weeks buys precious time for a crisis to pass.
Consider that when President Lincoln was a depressed young man and actively suicidal his friends removed all his knives and pistols and kept a careful watch over him, thus preventing a suicide attempt. A great read on this is: Lincoln’s Melancholy, by Joshua Wolf Shenk, Houghton-Mifflin Company.
Now that the Idaho guns-on-campus law has passed, we should learn all we can about constitutionally-appropriate, politically-neutral, and community-based suicide interventions available now for immediate implementation. There are some that actually work, and others are in research and development.
Watch this space.