Potential Space

by Lorrie Goldin, LCSW
In just the last few weeks, America has yet again been transfixed by gun violence: Orlando, two more black men shot to death by white police officers, Dallas. No doubt the roster of slaughter will grow to include other shattered towns and families.
Yet almost two-thirds of gun deaths do not make national headlines. These are the more than 21,000 people--many of them teenagers--who every year kill themselves with a gun.
Suicide prevention experts know that the best way to prevent these tragedies is to restrict access to guns. Their research upends the common but false belief that those who are suicidal will just find some other way to kill themselves. In fact, self-destructive feelings are often impulsive and fleeting, dissipating as the crisis passes. Ninety percent of those who survive an attempt never go on to die by suicide. But when guns are involved, the crisis can quickly escalate, precluding safe resolution. Fast and deadly means no second chances.
According to Harvard's School of Public Health, states with the highest rate of gun ownership also have the highest rates of suicide. Access to lethal means is a far greater risk factor than mental illness. Although some promote the fallacy that a gun in the home makes you safer, the opposite is true. The risk of suicide is two to five times greater for those who live in gun-owning homes. Teenagers--more likely to act impulsively and opportunistically--are especially vulnerable; the vast majority who fatally shoot themselves use a gun belonging to a family member. These eye-opening facts empower us to help our clients foster safety for loved ones regardless of where they fall on the gun ideology spectrum. Homes without guns have the lowest suicide rates, but even where firearms are present, risk decreases if they're properly stored--unloaded and under lock and key.
When it comes to preventing suicide, means matter. We always ask why people kill themselves, and certainly therapy can be vital in helping clients develop safety plans, metabolize their despair, strengthen their sense of self-worth, and improve social cohesion.
But we're also well advised to focus on how so many people die. It's the guns. Guns steal in an instant the time required to weather a suicidal crisis and reconnect with the reasons and desire to live.

If we really want to save lives, restricting easy access to such lethal means is our best and most immediate approach.