It's about suicide, guns not so much

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Mass murderers never ask themselves, “And after I kill all these innocent people, how will I escape?”
Rather, that “escape” is often a pre-planned suicide — whether delivered by one’s own hand or by a police sharpshooter.
Reducing access to firearms will surely save lives, but such measures fail to address the source code in all these terrible tragedies: the disordered brain of an utterly hopeless, mentally ill and suicidal person whose reasons for releasing hell on others die with him.
The vast majority of the mentally ill are not violent, but those who become suicidal represent a special threat to themselves, and sometimes others. The so-called suicide “contagion effect” travels like a virus from one suicidal mind to another suicidal mind via the media, and most mass murders follow another event previously publicized where a “like me” suicidal, rage-filled young man kills others and then himself.
Only through the detection, assessment and treatment of his emergent suicidal planning, and through frustration of his attempt to acquire the firearms for mass murder that his rage requires, can we hope to find a compassionate and sustainable solution.
Persistent suicidal thoughts and feelings are markers for personal psychological pain, pain which is at once exquisite and unbearable. If we are thinking about killing ourselves or others, something is terribly wrong and what’s wrong needs immediate attention and balm.
Psychological pain is one term that covers distress, despair, depression, rage, anxiety, isolation or hopelessness. More than 90 percent of suicide deaths are by people suffering from serious mental illnesses or substance abuse problems, the majority of which remain untreated, but all of which can cause unremitting psychological pain.
According to a 2008 federal survey, in one year the adult American psychological pain index was as follows:

  • 8.3 million of us seriously considered suicide
  • 2.2 million of us made a plan to kill ourselves
  • 1 million of us made an actual suicide attempt

In 2010, acute and severe psychological pain contributed to 38,364 completed suicides. That’s 105 Americans a day. Imagine what Congress and the president would do if a commercial airplane loaded with 100+ Americans crashed not once a year, not once a month, not once a week, but every single day, day after day after day?
While broad mental health reform is needed, bringing a laser focus to the prevention of suicide is the top priority. As former Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. David Satcher, said, “Suicide is our most preventable death.” Then, so too, is related violence toward others.
Rather than arming our teachers, we should ask: What actionable public health knowledge do we have to reduce violence toward self and others?
Answer: we have a lot of actionable knowledge. Published this past September, the “2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention” represents our best scientific thinking on how to prevent suicidal self-directed violence. The plan includes achievable goals, objectives and action steps.
Will it help?
Need proof?
In 2003 our own U.S. Air Force published a multi-year study in the prestigious British Medical Journal, clearly demonstrating that a robust, mandatory, suicide prevention/mental health promotion program dramatically reduced violence of all kinds. Findings:

  • 33 percent drop in suicides
  • 18 percent drop in homicides
  • 54 percent drop in serious family violence
  • 30 percent drop in moderate family violence.
  • 18 percent drop in accidental deaths (some of which were likely disguised suicides)

Several large-means restriction efforts to prevent suicide have proven successful in other countries; and in the Air Force study, reductions in other-directed violence were a happy and unexpected byproduct.
So let’s focus on what will work. Let’s implement our new National Strategy for Suicide Prevention 2012 now to produce wide, generalized harm-reduction effects throughout our nation. Remember that calm, happy, mentally healthy people – including millions of American gun owners – do not kill themselves or others.
As the gun debate unfolds, let’s not get lost in the bushes of how many bullets a Bushmaster holds, but view it through this lens:

  • Almost all mass murderers die by suicide.
  • Suicide is preventable.
  • Prevent suicide and you prevent violence.

An estimated 39,000 Americans will die by suicide in 2013. Since each 1 percent rise in unemployment drives up the suicide rate by 1 percent, America’s psychological pain index stands at an all-time high. Thanks to improved safety engineering and fewer motor vehicle accident fatalities, suicide deaths now exceed those due to car crashes.
So, let’s recalibrate and resource safetyfocused interventions that will not only lower our nation’s psychological pain index, but lead to broad reductions in self- and other-directed violence, including the risk of mass murders.
When our national grief work is done, let us memorialize our collective loss by taking bold, science-based positive actions. We have a plan. America, it is time! ◊
A clinical psychologist, Paul Quinnett, of Cheney, Wa., has been a member of OWAA since 1983. He is a suicide prevention expert and leads the QPR Institute. Contact him at

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