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Column: New Way Forward for N.H. and the Nation on Guns and Mental Health

  • House Democrats have submitted legislation to require background checks on all gun purchases and for some gun transfers. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.



To the Valley News
Wednesday, January 09, 2019

We are all aware of the seemingly endless and senseless gun violence happening in our country. In many cases there has been a rush to judgment to link mental illness as the cause, even as mental health experts and advocates know there is no causal relationship and that people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.

But while much of our attention has been drawn to gut-wrenching mass shootings, an alarming rise in the suicide rate — and use of firearms as the means — has gone largely unnoticed. Here are a few facts that shed light on the issue:

■ Nearly 22,000 people die each year of suicide using firearms, which translates to 59 deaths on a typical day in America.

■ The rate is climbing 19 percent each year and of the 22,000, approximately 1,000 are kids and teens.

■ Two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides.

■ Over half of all suicides involve the use of a firearm.

According to 2017 data, the trend in New Hampshire is not only consistent with the national picture, it’s actually getting worse. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in our state for those between age 10 and 34. Moreover, the overall suicide rate is increasing for all ages and, more specifically, firearms are increasingly becoming the chosen method of suicide for males of all ages.

Faced with these facts, isn’t it time that New Hampshire, and the nation, come to grips with this crisis? Once we acknowledge the seriousness of the threat, we can begin to identify the biggest drivers of it, which leads to the biggest driver of all: access. Whether it’s mass shootings, suicide or accidental gun deaths, the common thread in almost every case is the ease of access to weapons, which is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

From a problem-solving standpoint, if we can get better at informing and educating people about the risks associated with easy access to firearms and the profiles of people who are most at risk for a gun violence episode, we would likely see a sharp decline in the number of gun deaths from suicide and other causes.

This hit close to home for me very early in my leadership career.

A staff member of the mental health center I oversaw was unable to come to work for several days and chose to voluntarily admit herself to a psychiatric unit in a nearby city. She had bipolar disorder and was experiencing a relapse. She tendered her resignation and, during the termination process, a loaded revolver was found in her filing cabinet. We learned that the gun was purchased on one of her lunch hours as her symptoms were worsening.

The takeaway for me was shocking, in that this high-performing, very competent professional on my leadership staff came so close to potentially becoming one of the statistics I have referenced.

So what can we as individuals, organizations and communities do to decrease gun violence that results in severe injury or death? Here are just some actions we can take:

■ Build a comprehensive public awareness campaign to inform people of the responsibility and risks associated with possessing firearms, especially as it involves family members at risk of harming themselves or others.

■ Provide factual information regarding firearms as the primary means for many (especially males) to attempt suicide.

■ Continue building on the strategy developed in New Hampshire, which brings together the New Hampshire Firearms Safety Coalition and suicide-prevention groups. This includes voluntary gun safety efforts like the Gun Shop project.

■ Pass legislation, referred to as “red flag laws,” that provides a legal mechanism for the temporary removal of firearms from individuals at risk for gun violence and dangerousness.

■ Establish close working relationships with local and state law enforcement for situations that need their involvement and intervention.

■ Recognize and understand the efforts of gun safety and gun violence prevention organizations, such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and Everytown for Gun Safety.

■ Promote efforts such as the mental health first aid training provided by New Hampshire’s community mental health centers and The Connect Program, a community-based approach to suicide prevention provided by NAMI New Hampshire, and affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Dec. 14 marked six years since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that took the lives of 20 innocent children and seven adults, including the shooter’s own mother. That horrific incident, and others like it, and the troubling increase in suicides by firearms in New Hampshire and elsewhere, mean that we need to see this as the public health crisis that it is. We need to take action now.

Vic Topo is president and CEO of the Center for Life Management in Derry, N.H., one of the New Hampshire’s 10 private, not-for-profit community mental health centers.