L. Suzanne Fust: A will to suicide; discourage a way

  • Article by: L. SUZANNE FUST
  • Updated: July 18, 2008 - 7:06 PM

Obstacles to obtaining firearms are about saving the lives of people with an impulse to die, not banning guns.

After the recent Supreme Court decision stating that gun ownership is an individual right, you'd think that those representing the gun lobby's extreme stance would finally stop attempting to raise the fear in gun owners that common-sense measures to prevent gun injury and death are really just a means to ban all guns. Steve Chapman's column in the July 15 Star Tribune about firearm suicide does not represent the facts. When it comes to suicide, means do matter.

The idea that suicide is not preventable is a destructive myth held by many in the general population that is perpetuated by people with ideological agendas such as Chapman and criminologist Gary Kleck. A well-documented risk factor for death by suicide is access to a lethal means to complete the act. A new website from Harvard University's School of Public Health, www.meansmatter.org, cites current research demonstrating the importance of restricting access to firearms when someone is displaying warning signs of suicide (see www.afsp.org for a list of common warning signs). Indeed, research has shown that a significant number of completed suicides and suicide attempts are impulsive acts that occur when the individual is experiencing a life crisis and that 90 percent of those who survive a suicide attempt do not subsequently go on to die by suicide.

When an impulse to commit suicide is combined with ready access to highly lethal means to act on the impulse, the consequences are likely to be permanent and deadly. Suicide attempts by firearm are highly lethal; more than 90 percent of those who attempt suicide with a firearm die. Time is a key factor in suicide prevention. While some means of suicide such as pills or carbon monoxide allow time for discovery and intervention by family or friends or even for a change of mind and heart by the individual, suicide by firearm does not.

Adolescents are of particular concern in the use of means prevention as a strategy to save lives. The American Association of Suicidology has identified the availability of firearms as a significant factor in observed increases in rates of youth suicide. Most groups focused on suicide prevention note that one of the key risk factors for youth suicide is the presence of firearms in the home. This does not mean that the mere presence of firearms causes someone to attempt suicide. It means that if an adolescent gets the impulse to attempt suicide and a gun is present, it is more likely that he or she will use a gun to complete the suicide. One-third of all adolescents who commit suicide experience a significant crisis on the day they choose to die. Because teenagers' living circumstances, such as family life and school placement, are largely out of their control, they may feel unbearably trapped in difficult and emotionally painful situations. Combine this with the fact that the adolescent brain is less capable than that of an adult to make reasoned decisions and control impulses and it becomes obvious that reducing access to lethal means of suicide, and thereby placing into the equation more time from impulse to action, makes sense.

To support his claim that people who want to die by suicide will do so regardless of what means are available, Chapman cites a "natural experiment" that occurred in Europe 30 to 40 years ago when gas used in households was detoxified. Before that time, one of the more common methods of suicide in Europe was asphyxiation by breathing in the gas from kitchen ovens. Although Chapman states in his column that overall suicide rates did not change following gas detoxification, several research articles published in Great Britain showed, to the contrary, that a dramatic decrease in the overall rate of suicides took place at that time, simply by removing one common means of suicide. This decrease occurred despite rising unemployment, a variable generally found to be associated with suicide rates, during the same period.

None of this is about "banning guns," a phrase that Chapman bandies about as if there was a genuine possibility this could happen. It is about saving lives. If a depressed or potentially suicidal person lives in your home, it is clear that you should remove any guns you have and store them elsewhere, or, at the very least, store them in a gun safe to which the individual does not have access. When an impulse strikes, the more obstacles to overcome and the more time it takes to act on that impulse, the greater the chance that the impulse will disappear and that your loved one will survive to enjoy a long life.

L. Suzanne Fust is a developmental psychologist and the executive director of Citizens for a Safer Minnesota.

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