Written by Sylvia Ogilvie, graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis
Gun violence is inarguably one of the most divisive issues in the United States, whether we are arguing with family members around the holiday table, or watching political candidates point fingers at each other like children in the school yard.
It almost seems as if we hear about another senseless tragedy – a mass shooting, a traffic stop gone wrong – on a daily basis. But what we may not be hearing about as much is gun suicide.
We may think this is because gun suicide isn’t as large of an issue. But in fact, over 60% of people in the United States who die from guns, die by suicide.
Why we are not hearing more about this? Suicide, despite being the 10th leading cause of death overall and the 2nd most common cause of death for individuals ages 15-34, is still actively suppressed in the media due to fear of stigma and taboo. A recent example of this occurred when the “Good Morning America” staff asked representatives for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to move out of the camera’s view.
The Institute for Public Health’s Gun Violence Initiative and Dr. Sean Joe, of the Brown School, are trying to change this conversation. They have come together to create the Guns, Suicide, and Safety Workgroup. The group is committed to advancing strategies, considering the evidence, and exploring what can be done collectively to reduce Missouri’s rates of suicides, all while being committed to promoting the safe use of firearms.
The Guns, Suicide, and Safety Workgroup is focused on helping families and friends be informed about the warning signs of suicide and what they can do to help temporarily keep a loved one in suicidal crisis from having access to lethal means. These efforts are coordinated by members of the community, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, local service providers, local law enforcement and politicians, as well as gun shop/gun range owners.
Why is it so important to focus on gun suicide in particular? Cathy Barber of Harvard’s Means Matter Campaign, addresses this question. For starters, as the campaign’s name would suggest – means do matter. According to the American Association for Suicidology in 2012, gun suicides account for over half of all suicides.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2015, firearms are the most commonly used method for males to commit suicide. Even though females are more likely than males to have suicidal thoughts, males represent 77.9% of all suicides
According to Barber and the Means Matter Campaign, this is because of the level of lethality when a firearm is used in a suicide attempt. This is especially important considering that 90% of all attempt survivors do not go on to die by suicide later in life. Meaning that those who survive their attempt have an incredibly high chance of survival overall. This may seem surprising, but when you consider that the average phase of crisis for an individual who is considering suicide is often only hours or even minutes, it becomes clear exactly why means do matter so much.
The good news is there is hope out there. Right here in St. Louis we have incredible behavioral health resources. As a survivor of suicide loss, this suicide prevention campaign means the world to me, and is such an important part of the movement towards addressing suicide and mental illness as public health issues.
As a community, we need to do better and start talking about suicide, because the stigma surrounding it only puts individuals in crisis at an even higher risk. If you or somebody you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There are people who want to listen and help, and together we have the opportunity to truly make a difference, and change the dialogue about suicide.
For more information or to contact the Guns, Suicide, and Safety Workgroup, email the Gun Violence Initiative at firstname.lastname@example.org.