A focused, long-term effort to reduce the rate of suicide deaths all over the state will be launched at an event in Aberdeen Sunday morning. It comes with legislative backing and state funding for prevention programs, and its organizers hope their campaign will eventually work its way into every home in the state.
The idea is that suicide is a public health issue and that with training and widespread awareness of the signs, and knowledge of what to do about them, it’s preventable.
The event, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 Sunday at Franklin Field, kicks off the Safer Homes campaign organized by Forefront, a University of Washington School of Social Work-backed organization started by Jennifer Stuber, a professor in the school.
What Stuber learned when her husband died of suicide in 2011 was that a lot of people who one might assume would know how to deal with people considering suicide, really didn’t know.
In a sense, that applied to her, too. “Here I was, teaching mental health policy and I’m not teaching it in my classes and I’ve never been educated about it,” she said.
Her husband, Matt Adler, was a successful attorney and was seeing three different mental health providers when he died. But even mental health providers often don’t know what steps to take to help their patients, she said.
Like most people who die of suicide (about 51 percent), her husband used a gun.
Stuber says it’s critical to address the role of firearms in suicide and to partner with firearm advocates. It doesn’t mean restricting gun rights, it means keeping them from people who might use them for suicide, she said. And that means training and education for gun shop employees and households where guns are present.
She went to the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation and found strong support. Both groups helped pass legislation in Washington that funds development of training programs and provides incentives for gun shop employees to take it.
“We’ve been talking about firearm safety forever. … Hunter safety is just accepted,” Stuber said, “and the number of hunting accidents now is extremely low attributed to the courses that are taught, and yet most people who die by firearms commit suicide.”
Statistics on the number of deaths by “gun violence” can be misleading if they aren’t broken out by category, she said, because most of those deaths involve suicide, not murder. “In our state, over the “last 11 years, on the average, 78 percent of all deaths by gun were by suicide. That’s staggering.”
Though it’s important to keep guns locked up in a safe place to prevent accidents or theft, it’s far more important in the context of suicide, she said.
Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, is a supporter of gun rights who has worked side by side with Stuber on legislation. Speaking for gun sellers, he says, “ We are not suicide prevention experts. We don’t know what to look for. … The prevention courses help them understand what to look for and what questions to ask. If it’s a first-time buyer, you might want to find out why they want the gun.”
Gun shop owners “are buying into this at the 110 percent level,” Gottlieb said.
One of the sponsors of Sunday’s event is Ilan Kariv, owner of Grays Harbor Guns in Aberdeen.
He said they already consider it their responsibility to look for customers who exhibit emotional instability, but training from experts will help.
“We don’t live in a vacuum,” he said. “We are part of a community and similar to the ways we enforce state and federal firearms regulations, we have discretion” and can decide not to sell to someone who is in an unstable emotional state or intoxicated.
“We’re not going to be able to prevent all suicide by firearms, but we can contribute to the prevention. … If we feel strongly about a customer exhibiting the possibility of harming himself or others … we won’t sell them firearms.”
Engaging with customers to see what use they have for a gun is part of the service they perform in the shop, Kariv said, but people considering suicide can be deceitful. “We are open to training and listening to what professionals have to say about how to identify symptoms,” he said.
Forefront has helped get eight bills passed in the state Legislature to increase suicide prevention. Most of them and most of the effort so far has been directed at increasing training and awareness to health care professionals, doctors, dentists and mental health specialists.
That’s expanding now to the general public and that’s the idea for Safer Homes. It’s launching in Aberdeen because the genesis of the idea was developed on Grays Harbor Stuber said, initially in conversations between Stuber, former legislator Lynn Kessler (who is a stalwart champion of Stuber’s and a member of the Forefront advisory board) and state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, who Stuber calls “brilliant” and who squired much of the legislation.
Stuber said they brainstormed at Kessler’s house one day and felt it was important to build support in gun-friendly communities such as Grays Harbor. They sought and got help from local legislators, naming Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, and former senator Jim Hargrove in particular.
Stuber believes those efforts that started here are the seed that spreads a message around the state, teaching individuals that suicide is something we can all do something about.
If you are having thoughts of suicide and need help, you can call this number: 800-273-8255
The website for Forefront has information regarding spotting the signs that someone might be considering suicide and insights on how to intercede.
Sunday’s event features a number of giveaways, including locking devices for firearms and pill bottles, while supplies last.
The Safer Lock pill bottles made by Gatekeeper Innovation actually have combination locks on the lids. There will also be free medication disposal kits.
For firearms, SnapSafe Lock Boxes and Firearm Life Jacket locking devices will be given away.
And there will be a raffle drawing for a gun safe worth nearly $800.
There will also be information on training to show parents, teachers or anyone else how to look for signs that someone is considering suicide, and practical information on what can be done to head that off.