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Suicide Prevention Week — we must treat firearm suicide like a public health crisis
This week, as Americans recognize National Suicide Prevention Week, we remember the 40,000 individuals lost to suicide each year, approximately half of whom died from self-inflicted gun violence.
Despite what some may say, firearm suicide is gun violence - violence against oneself in a moment of overwhelming hopelessness. In fact, suicides make up nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths. We are in the midst of a crisis.
This week and every week Americans should reflect on the importance of preventing these deaths and focus on implementing policies that do so.
The first step in addressing this problem is simple: acknowledging that suicide is preventable. Having guns in the home increases the risk of suicide, largely because guns are by far the most lethal method. Research shows that where there are more guns, there are more suicides. A recent study found that "...suicide rates are 35 percent higher (in rural areas) than in urban settings - a disparity that can be attributed to greater use of firearms in rural settings."
Contrary to popular belief, suicidal individuals usually do not "find another way" to take their lives if guns are not accessible. Most people in crisis do not substitute another method if their preferred method is not available. Even when they do choose a different method, these methods are typically far less lethal. Removing guns can also lead people to postpone their attempts; in doing so, they are are more likely to survive, as suicidal crises are almost always fleeting.
Suicide is usually an impulsive act in a brief moment of intense despair; in one study of near-lethal suicide attempt survivors, one in four survivors said they deliberated less than five minutes before making their attempt. Nearly 75 percent said they deliberated for one hour or less. If a gun is present during this short window, a moment of crisis can end in permanent loss. Reducing access to guns during these critical moments can save lives.
Extreme Risk Protective Orders (ERPOs) give us the ability to do just that. ERPO is an innovative tool that allows family members and/or law enforcement officials to petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from an individual in crisis.
Using ERPO, concerned relatives can get help for a family member who is demonstrating suicidal behavior. ERPO is an effective suicide prevention tool because it allows those who are a threat to themselves and/or others to get help and heal without access to lethal weapons.
Over the last three years, ERPO-style laws have successfully been signed into law in California, Oregon, and Washington state. California became the first state to pass such a law in September 2014. In November 2016, voters in Washington state passed a similar policy through the ballot initiative process. In July, the Oregon legislature passed ERPO with bipartisan support. More than 20 states introduced ERPO legislation this past legislative session.
We can do more to prevent suicide. Nine of out ten survivors of suicide attempts do not go on to die by suicide. Treatment is effective if individuals survive long enough to pursue it; those who attempt suicide with guns almost never have the chance to do so.
In order to address our firearm suicide epidemic, we must have compassion for those who are suffering. We must have faith in them and in their ability to survive and recover. We must believe that we can help them.
We must tell policy makers to pass innovative, life-saving policies like ERPO. On National Suicide Prevention Week and throughout the year, we must commit to addressing this preventable public health crisis.
Josh Horwitz is the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.