It’s about suicide, guns

Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:00 am

– not so much

by Dr. Paul Quinnett

As some of you in OWAA (Outdoor Writers Association) know, I am also a clinical psychologist. What most of you don’t know is that I am also a suicide prevention expert and lead one of America’s most productive suicide prevention education organizations ( In a nutshell, we train and certify instructors to teach citizens and professionals how to prevent suicide, have more than 5,000 trainers in the US and other countries and train roughly 25,000 per month in how to prevent suicide.

Why this email?

The post Sandy Hook national conversation is devolving into a mind-numbing gun control waste of time debate. Yes, controlling access to firearms by disturbed people will save lives, and we are working with public health experts at both Dartmouth and Harvard, and friends in the firearms industry, to reduce such access – and with some success so far.

What we don’t need is more unenlightened discussion about melting down all the guns.

The shooter in Newtown was suicidal first, homicidal second. This is true of most mass murderers and about 30% of domestic violence related murder-suicides.

To keep the debate from veering off into the size of AR-15 magazines and pumping vast sums of money into broad mental health reform, what we need is a targeted, proven, and effective way to address firearms access by persons suffering from suicidal self-directed violence, a few of whom are also homicidal.

Bottom line: America needs to know there is a way forward besides uninformed gun control or just spending more money on non-targeted mental health services.

We at the institute feel that if the NSSP 2012 were fully enacted, many thousands of American lives could be saved, and including the lives of innocent children. You can help fire up the conversation.

Dr. Paul Quinnett

Mass murderers never ask themselves, “And after I kill all these innocent people, how will I escape?”

The “escape” is 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 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.

Yes, our culture of violence aids and abets the suicidal mind. Yes, too many guns and large capacity magazines increase the body count. Yes, the contagion effect is real and media exposure of mass murderers inspires copycats.

But let’s be real, while some measures will help on each of these fronts, these genies are out of the bottle and they are not going back in.

Only by preventing the development of his suicidal desire, ideation, intent, capacity, planning and, yes, frustrating his attempt to acquire the firearms that his rage requires to express itself can we hope to find a compassionate and sustainable solution. Early detection, assessment, and treatment of emergent suicidal behavior in known at-risk populations will at least give us a chance for reducing violence in our nation.

The debate on gun control will produce mostly heat, not light. Gun safety is another matter and excellent light on this subject can be found at – one of Harvard’s wonderful School of Public Health’s web sites. Gun owners who are alert to signs of crisis in a family member and temporarily store guns away from home if a family member is at risk of harming themselves or others will avert some disasters.

To understand the prime source code of violence – the suicidal mind – we must first understand that persistent suicidal thoughts and feelings are markers for unremitting, unendurable psychological pain and suffering. If we are thinking about killing ourselves or others, something is terribly wrong and something needs immediate attention and balm.

Psychological pain is one term that covers distress, despair, depression, rage, anxiety, isolation or hopelessness. More than 90% 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 what may become unbearable 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

For 2010, unbearable 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?

Yet, because suicidal people usually die alone and devastate only their family and friends, it is only when suicidal people commit mass murder that Congress rises from its lethargy.

But it is not just broad mental health reform; it is bringing a laser focus to the prevention of suicide – the source code to violent injury death.

We who work to prevent suicide for a living strongly support this statement by former Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. David Satcher, “Suicide is our most preventable death.”

Rather than arming our teachers, we should ask: What actionable public health knowledge do we have to reduce suicide and, with it, collateral violence toward others?

Unknown to the vast majority of the public, we actually have a lot of actionable knowledge. Published only this past September, the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention 2012 represents our best scientific thinking on how to prevent suicide and its related violence toward others. The plan includes achievable goals, objectives, and action steps.

Will it help?


Need proof?

In 2003 our own US 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% drop in suicides

• 18% drop in homicides

• 54% drop in serious family violence

• 30% drop in moderate family violence.

• 18% 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.

Implementing the National Strategy will have a wide, generalized harm-reduction effect through the improvement of the mental health of an entire nation. Remember calm, happy, mentally healthy people – including millions of America gun owners – do not kill themselves or others.

So 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. Among them will be our children, our teenagers, our working brothers and sisters and hundreds of doctors, police officers, firemen and veterans. Since each 1% rise in unemployment drives up the suicide rate by 1%, 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 from car crashes.

So, let’s recalibrate and resource safety-focused 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.