• December 10, 2016

Preventing the impulse

Proposed law enables mental health professionals to ask troops about firearms at home in effort to stop suicide

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Posted: Sunday, December 2, 2012 4:30 am

An attempt at suicide often happens on an impulse.

Chronic conditions may occur, but the acute period of heightened risk for suicidal behavior is often only minutes or hours long, according to information from the Harvard University School of Public Health.

In the military, nearly half of all suicides are committed with a gun, and hindering easy access could make a difference.

“Taking away the most lethal means of completing suicide would drastically reduce the risk,” said Trevor Summerfield, manager of federal policy for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a nonprofit dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide through research, education and advocacy.

As lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are working to finalize and pass the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, some are trying to include language to help the military cut the number of service member suicides by looking at access to the means.

Military-wide, 48 percent of suicides in 2010 were committed using a personal firearm, Summerfield said.

At Fort Hood, this year’s number is above average.

Of the 13 confirmed suicides and five pending confirmation, 10 were reported as gunshot wounds.

Ask about guns

Language in the House of Representatives’ version of the act, which has passed, would allow for mental health professionals to have a conversation with service members at risk for suicide about the firearms they own. Summerfield said the foundation is working with the Senate to include something similar. The Senate has yet to pass a defense authorization act.

U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, said suicide is one of the biggest issues affecting service members as they return home.

“It would especially concern me if they were taking the weapon (away),” he said in a phone interview. “But it seems to me the reason for this is to warn them if they are at risk for suicide, and maybe voluntarily restrict access or work with them. That’s all pretty good mental health work.”

In the past, similar legislation has failed, because of the fear personal weapons would be confiscated. A spokesperson for the National Rifle Association told the New York Times inquiries are OK. The organization did not return interview requests for this article and the local Friends of the NRA chapter declined to comment.

Scott Goldstein, legislative director for Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., helped write the language for the bill, and said he was careful to make clear Second Amendment rights could not be violated.

“It’s to allow a mental health professional to ask a service member about privately owned weapons,” he said. “That professional has to believe that they are a danger to themselves. They can ask if they have weapons at home. If they do, conversation flows from there.”

Some of the recommendations that could be made include storing the weapon in a locked safe, with someone else or removing ammunition.

It is already standard procedure at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center to inquire about personal weapons, said Capt. Erin Cooksley, hospital spokesperson.

“At the initial assessment and when safety is a concern during screenings and follow-up appointments, behavioral health providers ask whether the soldier owns a weapon and its location,” she said in a statement.

Register weapons

A 2011 policy signed by then-III Corps and Fort Hood Commander Lt. Gen. Donald M. Campbell Jr., states that all personally owned weapons must be registered with the Directorate of Emergency Services.

Those living in barracks or temporary housing must store weapons in their unit’s arms room. The policy states its purpose is to provide means for commanders and their subordinates to protect service members from accidents or incidents that could cause serious injury or death.

During his last week in command, Campbell said preventing suicide was the most challenging issue he faced.

“I always wonder what I could have done better to keep them from doing that,” he said Monday. “On a daily basis ... I try to prevent these tragic events from occurring.”

Goldstein said he sees the language in the House bill as another tool the military could use to save lives. It could only go into practice across the military if the Senate agrees to include it in a final bill approved by both chambers.

“I think this is just good preventive medicine,” Carter said. “It’s fine being a tough guy or gal, but if you’re having trouble, deal with it. Don’t commit suicide. It’s not worth it.”

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