Campaign to Partner Suicide Prevention and Gun Owners Comes to Campus

19,000 Americans take their lives with a firearm every year. Cathy Barber, director of the Means Matter Campaign at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, is working to reduce this number.

The Means Matter Campaign aims to increase the proportion of suicide prevention groups that promote activities that reduce a suicidal person’s access to lethal means of suicide.

Barber brought the Means Matter Campaign to the BTC on Oct. 15, in an event organized by the Center for Counseling and Transfer and Susan Klemme, member of the board of directors for the Capital Region chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).

“It’s part of our mission to give programs like this one back to the community,” said Laura Marx, Capital Region Area Director for the AFSP.

In her talk, Barber discussed three ways to counter gun-related suicide: reforming lethal means counseling in surveying patients’ behavioral patterns; storing guns away from home until a suicide risk is no longer present; and reforming emergency room protocol to incorporate gun ownership inquiry for risk-level patients.

“Unfortunately, suicide risk management is barely touched at all in social work,” Barber said, adding that patients who feel forced into counseling will likely attempt suicide. “That needs to change.”

Barber welcomed gun owners and non-gun owners to the event, telling the audience, “You can play an incredible role in saving lives in the Capital District.”

According to Barber, families and healthcare providers, rather than political efforts, help the most to prevent suicide. “If you don’t trust the message, you don’t trust the messenger and you’re likely to get the message a little wrong,” she said.

Barber does not want to be misidentified as a gun control advocate. “People say, ‘If you’re saying something negative about guns, you must be advocating gun control,’” she said. “We take the whole gun control issue and put it out in the hall and leave it there.”

Barber has found no correlation between gun ownership and mental illness in her research. “It doesn’t seem that gun owners are any more likely to be suicidal,” she said.”[It’s] just more likely if they become suicidal that it will be more lethal.”

90 percent of people who survive suicide attempts do not go on to die by suicide, Barber reported, stating that removing guns would lower the rate of completed suicide. This is because other types of suicide attempts, such as poisoning and suffocation, are much less likely to result in death. Suicide is often attempted during an acute crisis only minutes after suicidal ideation begins. Removing guns from the environment of suicidal people makes an impulsive suicide less likely.

She called gun owners and gun ownership groups to action in a community effort to cross-fertilize suicide prevention ideas. In New Hampshire in 2009, within a week, three people who bought a firearm from the same store committed suicide, within hours of the purchase.

One in ten suicides were performed with a firearm that was purchased or rented within a week of the suicide in 144 firearm suicides that occurred in New Hampshire over a two-year period ending in 2009.

In coalition with the Means Matter program, the New Hampshire Gun Shop Project was formed, providing means of suicide prevention to customers in 67 gun shops across the state. Barber hopes to form similar partnerships across the country.

Upcoming events for the Capital Region chapter of the AFSP include the Columbia-Greene Walk in Hudson on Oct. 25 and International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day on Nov. 22, with conferences in Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Saratoga Springs and Fort Edward.


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