This week, we dive right into a guest post by epidemiologist and attempt survivor Jennifer Garing on a bold project to bring a New Hampshire gun shop suicide prevention project to sprawling Texas:
We try not to talk about the means with which people attempt or complete suicide for fear of romanticizing it or creating a cookbook for completion. But sometimes the means are what really matter.
Guns. Firearms. They are the leading means of suicide in the United States. Vital statistics data show that twice as many people die from firearm suicides as from firearm homicides or accidents combined. Why? Because firearms are so prevalent? Because they are so easy to get? No. Because they are so lethal, and because once you pull the trigger, there’s no changing your mind. CDC studies show that 98 percent of individuals who attempt suicide using pharmaceuticals don’t complete. Yet 85 percent of individuals who attempt suicide with firearms do.
I was raised in a house with guns. I knew how to get to them. Knew how to load them and fire them. I even knew how to reload the shotgun casings. I was practically an expert. I even knew how my father’s gun safe worked. Yeah, my father is that kind of gun owner: a safety freak.
I was raised with a healthy fear of firearms. “Never point a gun at another person,” my father taught me. “Treat every gun like it’s a loaded gun, even if you know it’s not.”
Despite the many suicidal periods I went through, and even the attempt I made in that house, I never considered touching those guns. I’m not sure if it never occurred to me or if I just had too much respect for my father and his hobby to ruin it for him. I tend to lean toward the latter. I consciously chose to avoid my parents’ house during one episode because I knew I would end up killing myself by other means, and I didn’t want my father to be the one to find my body.
My father and I have always had a close relationship, and while I have used my disease at times to torment my mother, I have always shielded my father as best I could. It’s not that I intended to torment my mother. She just doesn’t have a mind for details when it comes to me. I drank my tea the same way for 30 years; my mother could never remember how I took my tea. So, during one particularly bad episode, I took it upon myself to prepare her for the eventual task of identifying my body should it ever become necessary. Where are my surgical scars? I would quiz her. Where are my scars from childhood? Where is my tattoo, and what does it look like?
It was a cruel exercise, CRUEL, in all capital letters. But one I felt, under the circumstances, was necessary. It would be her, not my father, who would have the grueling task of describing me, should it go that far.
It doesn’t surprise me that of my parents, my father has become the suicide prevention advocate. In his retirement occupation as a gun store clerk, he has championed the cause of means safety. You can even see him in a poster used in New Hampshire gun stores. He’s the guy behind the counter.
He says it’s really a decision of personal conscience. No one wants to be the one who sells someone the weapon they use to end their life. My father has experienced this once. A young man shot himself with a gun he purchased from my father. The guilt is overwhelming. More often though, he has seen individuals who seem “off,” or he has been warned by family members that someone is coming, and he either refuses to sell someone a firearm or stalls the individual until someone can come and take him to a hospital.
I know I fit somewhere in that equation. My father’s knowledge of my powerlessness over suicidal thoughts and the endless pain and hopelessness is apparent in the way he describes my illness to others. He sees the true reality of depression.
I remember in graduate school feeling unsafe having both of my sharp knives in my house. I took them to a friend’s and asked her to hold onto them for the time being. I never really believed I would hurt myself with the knives. I was just unnerved by the unsafe feeling.
That’s what we’re asking individuals to do with guns. When they hit a rough patch or someone in their family does, remove guns from the home. Keep them out of reach so that an impulse decision doesn’t become a life-altering or life-ending one. It seems like common sense, but you would be surprised at the number of people who never think about it.
For all my bravado about my life with guns, I am not immune. I spent a long weekend last fall at a family friend’s cabin in Colorado. There was some concern about bears in the area, so there was a loaded .45 on the table next to my side of the bed.
I spent a great deal of time being uncomfortable about that loaded gun being in such close proximity to me. It didn’t feel safe. It made me feel unstable. But I was a guest, and I didn’t want to make a fuss. And I didn’t want anyone worrying about me or thinking of me in that way. Even after four years with no suicidal thoughts, the gun was still calling out to me. I had a difficult time sleeping.
My father long ago made a deal with my mother. He will never help me obtain a firearm. Despite my usual issues with my mother’s controlling actions, I have no problem with this one. I don’t ever want to own a firearm.
This is not to say that I don’t believe people with mental illnesses should be allowed to own firearms. I believe very strongly that we have the same rights as every other American. I also feel very strongly that no one should be denied a constitutional right based solely on a medical diagnosis. But I think we have an extra responsibility to keep firearms out of the hands of those who are not safe to be around firearms, even if that includes ourselves.
I’ve been infuriated by some of the talk following the Newtown tragedy that has suggested that the “mentally ill” be barred from gun ownership altogether. It shows a level of ignorance and misunderstanding that, while completely believable, is shocking and a slap in the face.
Bringing the New Hampshire Gun Shop Coalition program to Texas, where I work, has been a journey. The people I have met along the way define my story.
There are the Harvard and Dartmouth scholars from New Hampshire who are epidemiologists like myself and worked with Ralph Demiccio, who owns my father’s gun store, to bring the program to New Hampshire in 2009.
There’s the suicide prevention advocate in Tennessee, Scott Ridgway, who has the monumental task of working with 1,700 gun dealers across that state. But he’s meeting with them one at a time _ 200 so far.
There are the Austin reporter and cameraman, who both had their own connections to suicide, who filmed an interview with me. I found myself saying out loud, on television, that I was a suicide attempt survivor and lived with severe mental illness, all the while clinging to the poster of my father.
There was the televised circus, the town hall meeting, “Guns in America,” sponsored by a Texas news station. Purported to be an open discussion on guns with experts from both sides of the debate, it quickly dissolved into fanatics from either side shouting ridiculous hypotheticals at each other. An end to rational communication, my husband called it.
There is the first gun shop owner I spoke to about the program here in Texas who caught me completely off guard by Googling gun stores in New Hampshire, randomly calling them and asking their opinion of the program. They all gave very positive reviews and were incredibly nice to him on the phone. He is “all in,” by the way, and wants to be part of our Texas coalition.
There’s the Texas NRA lobbyist who jumped on board with two feet. He was so much more moderate than I would have ever expected. I think the right wingers at the town hall meeting would have been deeply disappointed by him. But he proved to be a fountain of contacts, ideas, information and enthusiasm.
And then there’s Merily, my partner in crime, who lost her son to suicide and has been fighting the good fight ever since. She had me pegged as a survivor almost as soon as we met, but just the other kind of survivor. She sat me down after our television interview and talked to me until I was finished freaking out about what I had just done.
You might wonder why it’s so important to include gun stores in suicide prevention efforts. Dartmouth researchers abstracted medical examiner data and found that one in every 10 firearm suicides was committed with a newly purchased weapon. Receipts were often found at the scene. Some suicides occur right on the firing range with a rented gun. And here outside Austin, not even a month had gone by when someone killed themself in the parking lot of the newly opened Cabelas Sporting Goods store just south of the city.
I’m working with other suicide prevention advocates in Texas who want to collaborate with gun shops and shooting ranges to train their employees to spot individuals who are buying or renting firearms for the sole purpose of killing themselves. And we want to provide gun shops and shooting ranges with educational materials so their customers can spot the signs that a family member or friend is in trouble and may need to be separated from access to firearms.
This has nothing to do with gun control or background checks or no-fly lists or any invasion of privacy. It’s all about education, awareness and safety. It’s something everyone can get behind, regardless of how you feel about guns.
There is no shame in being safe. There is no shame in asking for help. There is no shame in needing help. We’re all there from time to time. The shame lies in the lives that could have been saved.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.