September 21, 2018  

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Anestis: National Suicide Prevention Month Opportunity to Educate Public, Re-Examine Firearms Safety, Policy Proposals

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Designating September as National Suicide Prevention Month is an opportunity to call attention to and examine responses that one University of Southern Mississippi faculty says many Americans agree should be considered to address the problem.

Dr. Michael Anestis, a Southern Miss associate professor of psychology, said that since 1999, the U.S. suicide rate has risen more than 30 percent, and, since 2005, the rate has risen each year. He further noted that nearly 45,000 Americans died by suicide in 2016, making it the 10th leading cause of death worldwide, with more than half of all American suicide deaths resulting from firearms, and nearly two out of every three firearm deaths in the U.S. being a suicide.

“Put simply, these numbers are not acceptable, and the only reasons we’ve allowed this to persist are a sense of stigma and discomfort that leads most of us to avoid discussing the topic of suicide or demanding sufficient funding for prevention research, and an unwillingness on the part of the nation to address the most common method of suicide death,” Anestis said.

“We do not solve difficult problems by ignoring them, but that is largely what we’ve done with suicide. This is particularly true with respect to firearms. When the conversation turns to firearms we avoid talking about suicide, and when the conversation turns to suicide we avoid talking about firearms.” 

In Mississippi, 70 percent of all suicide deaths result from firearms, the highest percentage in the nation, and, within the military, nearly two out of every three suicide deaths results from firearms. Anestis says there are several evidence-based, common sense and highly popular options that could save thousands of lives each year if the public demanded they be implemented. 

“Legislatively, universal backgrounds checks, mandatory waiting periods, and extreme risk protection orders have each been shown to be associated with lower statewide suicide rates,” he said. “Non-legislative approaches can help too, including promoting safe storage of firearms at home (unloaded, separate from ammunition, in a secure location like a gun safe or a lock box) and the temporary storage of firearms away from home during times of crisis.” 

Anestis said the most common argument he hears when he advocates for increased firearms safety and other legal approaches to vetting access is the idea that, if somebody truly wants to die and they cannot access a firearm, they will simply find another way. 

“Although that makes intuitive sense, it simply is not true,” he said. “Means safety – which refers to making specific methods for suicide less deadly or less available for suicide attempts – has been shown to result in substantial and sustained reductions in overall suicide rates across the globe and across methods. It works best when the method is highly lethal and highly popular in a specific area, so what works in one place will not be the right answer for another.”

Dr. Anestis notes that, as an example, when the Israeli Defense Force noticed their young soldiers were dying on the weekends using their service weapons, they shifted a policy such that soldiers could not take their weapons home during weekends or holidays, and the suicide rate among those young soldiers dropped by 40 percent. When Sri Lanka banned the sale of the most toxic forms of pesticide (the most common method for suicide rate there at the time), the national suicide rate fell by 50 percent.

With nearly 23,000 Americans dying by suicide using a firearm each year, Anestis said, gun owners need to be involved in the creation and management of solutions to the problem.

“Firearms do not make people suicidal, but they make suicidal people far more likely to die and, if we make firearms less accessible for suicide attempts, we will save countless lives without threatening the rights and culture of gun owners,” he said. “Hopefully, Suicide Prevention Month can motivate change, and momentum can build so that, when October comes, suicide prevention does not once again become an afterthought.” 
         
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress across the U.S. 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Lifeline is comprised of a national network of more than 150 local crisis centers, combining custom local care and resources with national standards and best practices. Learn more at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/about/.

To learn about Dr. Anestis and his work at Southern Miss, visit https://www.usm.edu/clinical-psychology/faculty/michael-anestis-phd.