There have been a lot of conversations started since the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, last month. There have also been a lot of non-starters, connections that people have tried to draw between the string of mass shootings and the nuances of American society that may or may not have contributed to the tragedies. Gun control is one of the conversations that did get off the ground. Mental health has taken a little more effort. But, as The Boston Globe's Leon Neyfakh pointed out in a column over the weekend, everyone seems to be missing a crucial intersection of the two: suicide deaths caused by guns.
The numbers are a little bit startling. In 2010, deaths caused by gun homicide numbered 11,078 in the United States. However, deaths caused by gun suicide reached 19,392. A number of studies has also shown that a majority of people who committ suicide come from homes with guns. But you you don't hear anybody talking the suicide issue after these mass shootings, do you?
"A lot of people, when they think about guns and violence — suicide is just kind of off the radar screen,” Daniel Webster, the director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, told The Globe. "People think about the gun problem as something that someone else is going to do to them."
Suicide is a tough enough issue to tackle, much less bundle into an arguably more complex discussion about gun control. In general, rates of suicide in the United States have been wavering over the past few decades, but the risk for certain subgroups is spiking at an alarming rate. The military, to be sure, is one of them. Just last week, the U.S. military revealed that suicides claimed the lives of 349 soldiers last year, significantly more than the 229 troops killed in combat in Afghanistan last year. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called suicide an epidemic in the military, an epidemic for which they can't seem to find the cure. Like in the civilian population, the majority of these suicides were carried out with a gun.
The military's not really sure what to do about its skyrocketing suicide rate, but one idea in discussion is quite simple: Keep at-risk soldiers away from their guns. Again, myriad studies have linked the rate of suicide with the availability of firearms, and the military astutely believes that limiting access to the deadly weapons will limit the number of deaths.
"This is not about authoritarian regulation," Dr. Jonathan Woodson, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told The New York Times a few months ago about a program that encourages family members to safely store weapons if they sense that a soldier is potentially suicidal. "It is about the spouse understanding warning signs and, if there are firearms in the home, responsibly separating the individual at risk from the firearm."
This strategy has been tested. Faced with a similar problem as the US, the Israeli Defense Forces saw a 40 percent drop in suicide rates after instituting a new rule that forbid soldiers from taking their weapons home over the weekend. They found not only that the lack of access to a deadly weapon decreased the likelihood of suicide but also drew attention to the weekend, when the majority of suicides took place. Medical experts have urged civilians to do the same thing--that is, to keep an eye on friends and to keep them away from firearms if they seem at all suicidal.
Even putting a lock on the box in which the gun is stored could save a life. As David Litts, the executive secretary of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, put it, "Every minute you can delay them increases the chance that they might survive."
Inevitably, the larger issue of depression and other mental illnesses must be addressed, but it's important to remain realistic about the rate of gun violence and mental health, which are not necessarily correlated. We do know that someone who is mentally ill is more likely to turn the gun on themselves than to commit a violent crime. So while we're all paying such close attention to gun control and helping victims of gun violence, shouldn't we have a serious talk about how to help them, too?
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