Majority Of Suicide Deaths Involve Guns, But Advocates Disagree On How To Change That

Suicide prevention advocates urge gun owners to keep their firearms secure. (Becca Costello, NET News)
Samantha Cleveland is one of about 70 crisis counselors at the Boys Town National Hotline, which also receives calls from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. (Becca Costello, NET News)
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October 1, 2019 - 6:45am

Suicide death rates are growing, but so are prevention efforts. Advocates try to stay away from the politicized gun debate while also addressing the number one cause of suicide deaths.

This story is part of our ongoing reporting project Nebraska: State of Mental Health.


Patricia Harrold of Papillion, Nebraska clearly remembers the day in 2012 that her husband died by suicide.

"That morning, I went downstairs and discovered that's what happened," Harrold said. "And I had to sit at the bottom of the stairs after I called 911, to determine, what was I going to tell my children who were just getting ready to get up for school?"

3-Digit Lifeline

The number of calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline increases every year, and it’s expected to go up even more when the lengthy 1-800 number is replaced with just three digits.

The FCC conducted a study and determined the number will likely be 988. Implementing the plan will take at least several months. 

The current number is 1-800-273-8255.

Heath Harrold was one of an estimated 220 Nebraskans who died by suicide that year. Suicide deaths in the state increased 14% between 2006 and 2016.

But it’s not just deaths – attempts are on the rise as well.

The Boys Town National Hotline is staffed by about 70 crisis counselors, who take calls from Nebraska. But it's also one of 150 call centers that answers calls from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

The center gets up to 300 calls a day, plus emails, online chats, and text messages.

Crisis Counselor Samantha Cleveland says it mostly involves listening and helping someone recognize what they already know.

"A lot of times when people are in crisis, their thinking brain kind of shuts off, and they're in that fight, flight or freeze," Cleveland said. "And so helping them de-escalate and get to a point where they can take a deep breath and say, 'This is what I need to do to stay safe today.'" 

Graphic: National Institute of Mental Health

A crisis line is important because it’s available at the exact moment a person is considering ending their life. It’s that moment advocates focus on – and just as important as crisis intervention, is means restriction.

Dr. Dave Miers is the Mental Health Services Manager at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln – and a longtime suicide prevention researcher and advocate.

"If somebody has this thought, and they go reach for that means that they're thinking about, and it's not there, what research shows is that they're not going to turn and try to go to the next thing," Miers said. "And they can get somebody to get connected to. That's what's going to save lives."

But this area of suicide prevention is controversial, because it means addressing the fact that guns cause the vast majority of suicide deaths – 53% in Nebraska since 1999. And in rural counties in the United States, about 60% of all suicide deaths were attributable to firearms. 

Graphic: National Institute of Mental Health

That’s one of the things Extreme Risk Protection Orders are meant to address. The measures, known as "red flag laws," allow a judge to order a person’s firearms taken away if they’re shown to be a danger to themselves or others.

Red flag laws have been a hot topic across the nation as a proposed way to prevent mass shootings. And about 70% percent of Americans support the measures, according to a recent NPR poll

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln introduced a bill in Nebraska this year.

"I think overall, the majority of Nebraskans support these laws, and even if they don't, it's the right thing to do," Morfeld said. "It will protect the public safety, and it will protect some people from themselves sometimes."

The measures allow a family member to ask for the order – and the hearing is usually held without the person present and able to advocate for themselves.That’s one reason opposition is strong.

"It's not due process, because I don't get to have a day in court first. I'm supposed to be able to answer my accuser before my liberty is taken away," said Dick Clark, a Lincoln-based attorney who specializes in firearm rights cases. "And this is something where, to quote the president actually, 'They take the guns first, and then give the due process later.' And that's not how it's supposed to work." (President Trump expressed support for red flag laws last month.)

Morfeld says the criticism is unfounded. 

"Due process doesn't mean that you don't have your rights taken away, it means that there's a process by which those rights are taken away," Morfeld said. "When there is a compelling state interest, so the harm of yourself or others, there is processes by which the state can temporarily take away those rights like any other constitutional right."

Clark says the bill is unnecessary because Nebraska already has a mechanism for protecting Nebraskans in crisis; if law enforcement finds probable cause that a person is at risk of self-harming or harming others, they can place the person in emergency protective custody. 

Patricia Harrold is in a somewhat unique position. As a suicide survivor, she's an advocate for both suicide prevention as well as firearm rights. 

In fact, she calls herself a firearms enthusiast, which surprises a lot of people because of her husband’s death.

Patricia Harrold (Photo: Incendio Training)

"Some people find me inconceivable. They cannot connect the two together. And I can understand that," Harrold said. "But all I am is just an individual. I'm an individual example of someone who does not look at how he died, but what led to his death, as the most important aspect of this."

Harrold operates a firearm training company, works at a gun range on the weekends, and has lobbied at the Unicameral on various gun measures.

And she says a red flag law is the wrong move for Nebraska.

"If I'm a person who owns firearms, and I'm facing a crisis, how likely am I going to seek out help or alert others to my situation, when I have this threat of my firearms being taken away from me?" 

Research seems to show the measures are effective, though. A 2018 study in Psychiatric Services found gun-related suicides fell significantly after the passage of the laws in Indiana and Connecticut.

Other research backs that up; one study published in Health Policy in 2011 determined that state laws that reduce overall gun availability are the most effective gun control policies with respect to suicide rates.

Gun ownership and use is one of the most divisive issues in the country, and suicide discussions have historically shied away from gun control. The Nebraska Statewide Suicide Prevention Plan, which covers 2016-2020, recommends a plan for "appropriate restriction of lethal means of suicide as a societal norm." But the 18-page report doesn't include a plan for that, and doesn't mention guns or firearms at all.

When advocates talk about means restriction, they tend to stick to educating gun owners about safety.

Jennifer Moffett is the Nebraska Co-Chair for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She says firearm safety is one of their primary goals.

"A lot of times there's this misnomer that everyone is educated in my home on how to use a firearm," Moffett said. "But we forget that we don't want people who might be at risk to know how to access it, can get the key, can find the gun, anything like that."

Harrold says the gun community is also working on suicide prevention safety measures, like encouraging shops to pass out literature with every gun sale.

And she hopes the extreme divide over guns in America doesn’t block suicide prevention efforts.

"We all want the same goal — we're going to pursue it in a different way," Harrold said. "But if we could at least acknowledge that our intentions are pure, I think we've come a long way to bridging the gap."


If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK or online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Stay tuned for more from our ongoing reporting project Nebraska: State of Mental Health on air and online. 

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