As part of my engagement with LGBT-related issues over the last year, I have learned that this particular population is especially at risk for suicide, especially when they face strong rejection from families and faith communities. This has led me to get to know the work of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). In the following reflections I draw on resources offered by Roland Behm, of the Atlanta branch of AFSP. This column in particular has to do with how suicidality relates to guns in the family home and what clergy can do about it.
Suicide remains a major cause of death in the United States, in many age groups. From 2008-2013, it was the third leading cause of death among those aged 15-24, the second leading cause of death among those aged 25-34, and the fourth leading cause of death among those aged 10-14, 35-44, and 45-54. Probably most readers know of friends or family members who have taken their own lives.
Guns are not the most common method by which people attempt suicide, but they are the most lethal. About 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm end in death. Drug overdose, by contrast, which is the most widely used method in suicide attempts, is fatal in less than 3 percent of cases.
What makes guns the most common mode of suicide in this country is that they are both lethal and accessible in many homes. About one in three American households contains a gun. Gun owners and their families are much more likely to kill themselves than are non-gun-owners. It’s not that gun owners are more suicidal, but that they’re more likely to die if they attempt to kill themselves, because they are using a gun.
Psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers have begun working on how to talk with suicidal patients and their families about reducing access to firearms at home. Unfortunately, people contemplating gun suicide are not always in treatment and often don’t display clues in advance–not even to themselves.
And consider this: more than 80% of adolescent gun suicide deaths come from using a gun found in the family home. So the risk pertains not just to troubled adults in the home who might seek out help, but also to adolescents who might not.
Informal contacts, outside the familiar channels of mental health care, may be especially important in many situations. This include clergy. When we encounter deeply troubled families or suicidal people, it is clear we now need to be bold enough to ask this question: “Is there a gun in your home?”
According to a 2003 study, one-quarter of those who ever sought treatment for mental disorders did so from a clergy member. Ministers are contacted by higher proportions than psychiatrists or general medical doctors (both at 16.7 percent). Nearly one-quarter of those seeking help from clergy in a given year have the most seriously impairing mental disorders. The majority of these people are seen exclusively by the clergy, and not by a physician or mental health professional. What an incredible responsibility this puts on our shoulders.
There are at least two ways clergy can play a role in reducing gun suicide. First, we can ask questions about both the person’s mental state and any gun access or ownership. Second, we can counsel troubled people with access to guns to store firearms in a locked gun safe or other appropriate security device that is resistant to tampering from persons in their homes or, even better, to temporarily surrender their firearms to a third party (friend, neighbor, police, gun range) so that they are not readily available to the person or their loved ones.
The insertion of clergy or some other known person as a trusted intermediary may make a troubled person more willing to turn over their guns, as they can retain their anonymity and not be faced with the anxiety of turning over a gun to an unknown third party.
Gun clubs may be an unexpected resource. Some clubs are asking for suicide awareness and prevention training. Some might also be willing to serve as a temporary gun storage facility for families or individuals who would benefit from having their gun(s) moved out of the family home. Some individuals may feel more trusting of a third party like the gun club retaining their guns, instead of, for example, the police.
In Georgia, half the population says that they attend church every week or almost every week. There is much we in the churches can do to address gun suicide without any change in legislation — and it can be done in collaboration with mental health practitioners, firearms dealers, and gun rights advocates.
The question can’t be, ‘What do you think of gun control?’ because that is a political question that simply divides people. But when the question is, ‘How do we solve the problem of gun suicide?’ we can work out good ideas that everyone can agree on – and that can save lives.
9 out of 10 people who attempt suicide and survive do not go on to die by suicide later. If we can save a life in the short run, we likely save a life in the long run. Surely this is a pivotal dimension of Christian ministry.