The U.S. suicide rate is at an all-time high. We now lose more Americans to suicide than to traffic fatalities, breast cancer or prostate cancer. The recent suicides of musicians Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington focus public attention on suicide. But we typically lose that attention quickly because the work that lies ahead seems daunting. Our nation’s suicide rate is the result of complex social and economic trends contributing to the isolation, disempowerment and traumatization of the U.S. population.
But here’s the thing. We know how to make progress against complex public-health problems like this one. We have done it before. Consider what we have accomplished over the past 30 years to prevent fatal heart attacks. Today, we use a multipronged approach of public education on the causes of heart disease, warning signs for a heart attack, and the role of diet and exercise. Many adults have taken a course on how to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). As with heart disease, suicide won’t have a simple fix. However, recognizing we all have a role to play can make a big difference.
In Washington, people from all walks of life—gun dealers, pharmacists, health-care providers, dentists and legislators—are working together on suicide prevention. No other state has been able to achieve this level of cooperation.
Leaders within firearms-rights advocacy organizations, including the Second Amendment Foundation and the National Rifle Association, are embracing an important role in suicide prevention. In Washington, not unlike many western states, nearly 80 percent of firearm-related fatalities are suicides—not homicides or accidents. The pain of suicide is well-known in communities with high rates of firearms ownership.
Together, we are working on the public-education campaign, Washington’s Safer Homes, Suicide Aware. Our initiative includes training for firearms-safety instructors and firearm retailers (in the near future for gun owners), distribution of suicide awareness videos and other materials, and community-based efforts to give away free locking devices for medications and firearms coupled with a powerful awareness message.
Thanks to the leadership of State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, and a bipartisan commitment to reducing suicide, we are engaged in a public-health experiment that the rest of the nation is watching. Washington is the only state in the country to require every mental-health and health-care professional to receive training in suicide prevention. This is significant because what should be the standard of care for suicidal individuals will soon be well-known throughout the state. These professionals can then play a critical role in helping to bring about the organization and systems changes that are needed to care for individuals who are at risk for suicide.
Dentists and pharmacists volunteered to take part in this significant workforce training effort. They, too, recognize that their long-standing relationships with many patients and the role they play in prescribing, dispensing and providing education about medication safety is a critical component of suicide prevention.
It’s common sense to focus on public education and the behavior change that is needed to lock and limit access to firearms and medications pre-emptively to prevent suicide. These means are used in the majority of suicide attempts and deaths.
What is making the difference is something simple yet, often forgotten. Finding common ground in our communities and our politics is possible and essential to solving our nation’s most complex problems. We are beginning to find that common ground on suicide prevention in Washington. Our fortitude and partnership to eradicate suicide must remain at the forefront.