Our Voice: Education key for suicide prevention

Our state lawmakers may have a tough time agreeing on a lot of important issues, but fortunately, helping prevent suicide is not one of them.

The Legislature this session overwhelmingly approved the Washington Suicide Awareness and Prevention Education for Safer Homes Act. The bill is an achievement between suicide prevention groups and gun rights activists, and demonstrates how forming alliances early in the law-making process can help move bills more quickly through the Legislature. It is now awaiting the governor’s signature.

The proposal encourages gun dealers to participate in suicide awareness and prevention education programs, and asks them to provide certain gun storage devices at cost. Suicide prevention messages also are to be included in hunter safety classes, and there is supposed to be an added emphasis on the proper way to store guns.

Kristi Haynes with the Benton Franklin Suicide Prevention Coalition said anything that promotes suicide awareness is helpful. She said she is particularly pleased that efforts are being made to teach people the importance of how to properly store a firearm — especially since most suicide deaths by young people occur with the family gun, in the family home after 3 p.m.

She said limiting access to guns is critical in protecting kids “from a bad day” and that, tragically, suicides in Benton and Franklin counties doubled in 2015 from the previous year. Statewide, nearly 80 percent of all gun deaths are suicides, according to the latest statistics provided by Washington State Health Services Research Project.

Gun safety and suicide prevention go hand-in-hand, and our community needs to recognize this. Suicidal thoughts can be impulsive, and ready access to a gun can lead to a tragedy. A report by Newsweek magazine last September echoed these concerns, and was called “America’s biggest gun problem is suicide.”

While the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation often have balked at proposed state gun laws, this latest bill in Olympia had strong support from both organizations.

Alan Gottlieb, SAF executive vice president, said on the group’s website that, “Suicide prevention is not, and should never be, about gun control, but about saving lives and preventing tragedies.” He praised the bipartisan effort that went into crafting the bill, and particularly commended Jennifer Stuber, a University of Washington social work professor, who reached out to gun rights activists to ensure that the new proposal would be something they could support.

Stuber lost her husband to suicide in 2011 and has been a fierce advocate for suicide prevention ever since. She was wise to include as many groups as possible in her effort to get the proposal through the state’s legislative maze. Historically, bills that are opposed by the gun lobby have a tough time. But since the NRA and SAF were onboard right out of the gate, it made legislative support for the proposal much easier.

In addition to encouraging gun dealers to take suicide prevention classes, the bill also includes suicide awareness training for pharmacists and asks them to talk to their customers about how to safely store their prescription drugs.

We hope all these efforts make a difference. Suicide rates are climbing in our community and in our state, and we need to do whatever it takes to reduce these tragedies.

For anyone who may feel in distress, call the crisis hotline at 509-783-0500 or the suicide prevention line at 800-273-TALK (8255).