I remember my friend Jean every time I hear about the suicide death of a young person.
Jean found her 17-year-old son, shot dead by his own hand, in their living room. Although I have known others who lost a child (a reality I can thankfully only imagine), it’s Jean who stands out. The impact on her family was devastating.
That was the first suicide involving somebody close to me; sad to say, I’ve had others in my life. It was also the first time I heard the adage: “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that each year, approximately 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries in ERs across the country. HealthyChildren.org says that suicide is one of the three leading causes of death for 13-to-19-year-olds in the United States, with an average of four deaths every day.
Not surprisingly, suicide attempts with a firearm are usually deadly, while people who use drugs or other methods have a greater chance for survival. About 45 percent of young people use firearms to attempt suicide, and boys are more at risk to die: 81 percent of deaths are males—because they are more likely to use firearms.
“Even in the best of circumstances, when you’re in adolescence, you feel different,” says Palm Desert resident Carol Bayer, a licensed marriage and family therapist who counsels many teenagers. “Depression and despair can come from betrayal or rejection by a best friend, the end of a love affair, family conflicts, or just feeling isolated, alone, and without family support or coping skills. Even if they want to reach out, they assume others will say they’re just being ‘dramatic’ and tell them to get over it. But they don’t believe they have options other than ending the pain.”
A recent effort, specifically targeted toward LGBT teenagers, is the” It Gets Better” campaign, which uses videos—featuring people ranging from normal, everyday folks to high-profile stars—to reach out to bullied young people.
“Everyone deserves to be respected for who they are,” says the website. Organizers ask people to join their campaign and to pledge: “I’ll provide hope for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other bullied teens by letting them know that it gets better.”
Meanwhile, Caitlyn Jenner is shining light on transgender suicide in her new reality TV program.
But it’s not enough to just tell kids it gets better. An analysis by Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center indicates that for every age group across the country, “states with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm suicide. … The vast majority of adolescent suicide guns come from parents or other family members.”
A 2012 study by the Children’s Defense Fund indicates the gun death rate for children and teens is four times greater in the United States than in Canada (the country with the next-highest rate), and 65 times greater than in Germany and Britain. Even more disturbing, public health researchers found that 43 percent of homes with guns and children have at least one unlocked firearm.
The Children’s Defense Fund also reports that in 2008-2009, an estimated U.S. 127 children died from gunshots in their homes, and dozens more died in the homes of friends, neighbors and relatives. More than half pulled the trigger themselves or were shot by another child. At least 52 deaths involved a child handling a gun left unsecured; 60 children died at the hands of their own parents, with 50 of them in homicides. The average age of the victims was 6 years old.
Research by the New England Journal of Medicine shows that when doctors consult with patients about the risk of keeping firearms in a home, it leads to significantly higher rates of handgun removal or safer storage. Yet the National Rifle Association has fought against such policies, backing the “Docs vs. Glocks” law passed in Florida in 2011, which prohibited doctors, even pediatricians, from asking patients about firearms in the home.
When a 2-year-old gets access to his dad’s loaded gun and shoots himself, or a 13-year-old gets hold of an unsecured rifle and blasts a 9-year-old in the face, or a 2-year-old is shot in the head before her father turns the gun on himself, or two young children shoot others and then kill themselves—when we have apparently become inured to the death of children at school, or we take as the new normal random killings in movie theaters, have we at last lost our ability to be outraged and insist that public policy respond to limit these horrendous events?
Even as violent crime rates overall have declined steadily in recent years, rates of gun injury and death are climbing. In an editorial in Annals of Internal Medicine, a team of doctors wrote: “It does not matter whether we believe that guns kill people or that people kill people with guns—the result is the same: a public health crisis.”
Meanwhile, Congress, under the aggressive and well-funded lobbying influence of the NRA, refuses to allow funding for federal medical research to study firearm deaths and injuries as the public health issues they clearly are. According to Mother Jones, “Political forces effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and other scientific agencies from funding research on gun-related injury and death. The ban worked: (There have been) no relevant studies published since 2005.”
There are two types of gun-related public health costs. First, there are direct costs, exceeding $8.6 billion, with the largest portion being long-term prison costs; about 87 percent of these costs fall on taxpayers. Second, there are indirect costs, adding up to at least $221 billion, including lost income, losses to employers, and losses based on court costs and awards to victims and their families. One would think that based on cost alone, Congress would be willing to act. Of course, that’s not the case.
As overwhelming as all these statistics may be, and as helpless as we may feel to impact public policy, there are ways to get involved and make a difference:
- Moms Demand Action has a local chapter and needs volunteers who are willing to spread the message that we must act to protect kids from accidental or deliberate use of guns. Palm Desert’s Dori Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org), the local representative, reminds us: “It’s easier to lock up a gun than it is to grieve a dead child.”
- California law requires that guns in homes with children be kept locked away, preferably with trigger guards, with ammunition stored separately.
- Never assume that children don’t know where guns are, or that they are unable to access them—they do, and they will. Grandparents, this means you, too.
- Ask parents of your children’s friends about the status of firearms in their homes before your child spends time there. Better safe than sorry.
- If your teen becomes depressed, and you have any concern about access to firearms, get guns out of your house for the time being.
- Take seriously any thoughts of or mention of suicide, and immediately seek professional help. Go to the emergency room if no other option exists.
- The local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention sponsors an annual Out of the Darkness Walk, a chance to be with others who can share their experiences and coping skills. Don’t be afraid to reach out.
- Tell your elected representatives that you want medical professionals to be allowed to study and then implement firearm-related public health policies.
Most survivors of a suicide attempt are glad they were saved. Unfortunately, those who make that attempt with a firearm are usually successful. I can never erase from my mind the agony of my friend Jean when she found her son’s body. No parent should ever have to face that.
We must never accept this as the new normal. These are our children.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.