We Have the Tools to Help Young Women Survive This Gun Violence Epidemic

Our country is experiencing a gun suicide epidemic.

Suicides comprise six out of every 10 gun deaths in the U.S.; firearms account for half of all suicides. The rate of firearm suicide is climbing each year—and it is quickly becoming a larger problem among both women and girls. In 2016, nearly 3,300 women and girls died by firearm suicide—nine every single day. This number has increased each year for the last several years, illustrating an alarming trend: more girls and women are using firearms—the most lethal method of suicide—to take their own lives.

Bart Everson / Creative Commons

In order to address this problem, we must first recognize that firearms and suicidal crises are a deadly combination—a fact that individuals on both sides of the gun debate should be able to acknowledge. There is a well-established link between the availability of firearms and suicide, and where there are more guns, there are more suicides. Though the gun lobby tells women and girls that guns will protect them from abusive partners or intruders, research shows that gun-owning women are more likely to be victims of both gun homicide and suicide than non-gun-owning women.

The strong relationship between guns and suicide exists largely because suicide attempts are almost always impulsive, and guns make these moments of impulsivity lethal. Firearms in the home can mean the difference between life and death when someone is in crisis—and while they may not be able to purchase firearms themselves, young people who have access to others’ guns are also at risk. (Firearms used in youth suicide usually belong to a parent.)  Most acute suicidal crises last only hours or minutes; in one study of near-lethal suicide attempt survivors, researchers found that nearly 75 percent deliberated for one hour or less before making their attempt. Guns make suicide far too easy in these moments of despair, and their absence provides time for the crisis to pass. Contrary to popular belief, most individuals do not substitute another method of suicide if their preferred method is not available. And even if they do substitute, other methods are less lethal.

While the presence of a gun is a strong risk factor for suicide, mental illness is also a significant risk factor. The majority of those who die by suicide experienced symptoms of mental illness prior to their death. Although most conversations around mental illness and violence center acts of violence like mass shootings, research shows that mental illness is not a significant risk factor for interpersonal violence. Instead, the real risk in the overlap between guns and mental illness is the risk of suicide.

Women experience clinical unipolar depression—a strong risk factor for suicide—at twice the rate that men do. These high rates of depression among women are compounded by gender-specific risk factors including domestic violence, income inequality, socioeconomic status, social oppression and discrimination—leaving women of color, LGBTQ women and other women at the intersections at an even higher risk. Additionally, the appalling prevalence of sexual assault in the U.S. corresponds with a high rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—yet another risk factor for suicide.

When these factors are combined with easy access to guns, the risk of a fatal suicide attempt increases—but suicide is not inevitable. We must recognize that firearm suicide is preventable, no matter the circumstances. In order to do that, we must treat gun violence in all its forms—including gun suicide—as a feminist issue. We cannot let women die by firearm suicide when we know there are evidence-based solutions that can save lives. We must act with urgency to prevent these deaths.

The following three steps would help curtail the number of firearm suicides among both women and the general population:

First, we must recognize that domestic violence, sexual assault, income inequality, socioeconomic status, social oppression and discrimination can contribute to mental health challenges, and in turn, to suicide. We must get involved and stay involved in the fight to prevent violence against women and discrimination against women who are consistently marginalized and pushed aside. By addressing these social issues and advocating for change in communities across the country, we can reduce the likelihood of firearm suicide among women and girls.

In addition, we must change the way we talk about mental health—including mental illnesses that disproportionately affect women. We must acknowledge that depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses are not character flaws while recognizing that they are risk factors for suicide. We must stop blaming interpersonal violence on mental illness—and start to talk openly about suicide and mental illness. We must seek help without shame and ask those who are struggling whether they are thinking of suicide. We must speak loudly and shout from the rooftops that suicide is preventable. And we must support policies that empower those with mental illness to speak out and make decisions about their own care.

Finally, we must pass innovative gun violence prevention policies to reduce suicide at the state level. Such policies include allowing those who suffer from chronic suicidality to put a barrier between themselves and guns and allowing family members to petition a judge to temporarily remove guns from loved ones in crisis.

Firearm suicide among women and girls is a complicated problem that requires and deserves a complex, robust response and an intersectional movement of activists working together. Gun violence prevention organizations, suicide prevention groups, mental health advocates, social justice organizations, lawmakers, women’s rights advocates and everyday activists must come together to untangle, examine and tackle the factors that put women at risk. We must come together to address the role firearms play in suicides and fight for commonsense gun violence prevention policies.

We must come together to send a clear message: Firearm suicide is not inevitable, and we have the tools to prevent it.

If you — or someone you know — need(s) help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255.

Bryan Barks is the executive editor at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. She is also a mental health advocate who writes about suicide prevention and innovative gun violence prevention policies, among other topics. She is a contributor to both the Hill and the Mighty, and her work has been featured in several national publications. She lives in Alexandria with her husband. You can find and follow her on Medium.

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