Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Firearm suicide prevention efforts are tricky in rural Utah

Robin Hatch hands out gun socks with a suicide prevention
hotline printed on them. (KUER photo by Erik Neumann)
Firearms account for just over half of all suicide deaths, but trying to prevent use of guns for suicide can be difficult in rural areas, where firearms are part of the local culture.

Suicides by gun are much more common in rural areas, mostly because of easier access to firearms. It's a particular problem in Utah, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, and especially in rural northeastern Utah, which has a suicide rate 58 percent higher than the rest of the state. Guns are a popular means of suicide in Utah: 85% of the state's firearm deaths are suicides, and suicide attempts with guns are far more likely to be successful, Erik Neumann reports for NPR.

Because guns are so popular in Utah, efforts to prevent suicide have mostly focused on increasing gun safety with devices such as free gun locks, expanding mental-health and crisis-response programs in rural areas, and promoting awareness among locals about when and how to intervene if they see someone at risk of suicide, Neumann reports. 

Dee Cairoli is a pastor who teaches concealed-carry classes on the side. "When hosting classes, Cairoli explains how gun owners can intervene if another gun owner shows signs of a mental-health crisis," Neumann reports. When Cairoli was 15, his father killed himself with a gun, but Cairoli says he never hated or blamed the gun; he focuses on the fact that his father could get a gun in a "desperate moment," and wants other gun owners to understand the importance of keeping an eye on friends.

Republican state Rep. Steve Eliason, who represents suburbs near Salt Lake City, has sponsored several bills focused on firearm safety, suicide prevention, and mental health. Eliason also has been touched by gun tragedy; three young male relatives have been firearm suicides. He told Neumann he has been careful to focus on safety and not restricting gun rights, since guns are so popular.

Counselors from Northeastern Counseling Center, in the northeast Utah community of Roosevelt, are more pointed. They have a table at a local gun-and-knife show to give out safety goodies meant to slow someone considering suicide in a moment of crisis: cable locks and gun socks with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number printed on them, Neumann reports. As they hand out the swag, they strike up conversations. One counselor, Robin Hatch, told an attendee: "Lethal access to lethal means makes a difference. Suicide attempts by any other means are less lethal."

Hatch told Neumann, "Anything that we can do to get people off track a little bit, thinking something different. We believe that will help make a difference in our suicide rates."

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