In Rural Utah, Preventing Suicide Means Meeting Gun Owners Where They Are

KUER, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

This story can be republished for free (details).

A gun show might not be the first place you would expect to talk about suicide prevention — especially in a place like rural northeastern Utah, where firearms are deeply embedded in the culture.

But one Friday at the Vernal Gun & Knife Show, four women stood behind a folding table for the Northeastern Counseling Center with precisely that in mind.

Amid a maze of tables displaying brightly varnished rifle stocks, shotguns and the occasional AR-15 assault-style rifle, they waited, ready to talk with show attendees.

“Lethal access to lethal means makes a difference,” said one of the women, Robin Hatch, a prevention coordinator with Northeastern Counseling for nearly 23 years.

Utah has one of the highest rates of suicide in the U.S. And from 2006 to 2015, 85% of firearm deaths in the state were suicides. According to Utah’s health department, suicide rates vary widely by location. For example, the suicide rate in this corner of Utah is 58% higher than the rest of the state.

Suicide by gun is a particular problem: The rate in rural areas is double that in urban areas, according to state officials. A major factor is the easy access to firearms in Utah — and the grim fact that suicide attempts involving guns have a higher mortality rate than by other means.

Northeastern Counseling Center prevention specialist Robin Hatch gave out gun socks screen-printed with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline information at the Vernal Gun & Knife Show in Vernal, Utah.(Erik Neumann/KUER)

This was the first time Hatch and her colleagues at Northeastern Counseling did outreach at a gun show. As the auditorium filled with firearm sellers and hunters, the counselors stacked their folding tables with neat piles of free cable locks that thread into a gun to prevent rounds from being loaded, and water-resistant gun socks screen-printed with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number.

The idea behind distributing both devices is to slow a person down during a moment of crisis. “Anything that we can do to get people off track a little bit, thinking something different,” Hatch said. “We believe that will help make a difference in our suicide rates.”

Utah Shooting Sports Council.

That study spurred discussions about the problem of firearms and suicide and formed the basis of at least one of Eliason’s 2019 bills, to expand access to gun locks.

Like Eliason’s work at the state policy level, Hatch’s suicide prevention work in her community depends on relationships and trust.

Hatch’s table at the gun show was less busy than others. But the women gave out hundreds of gun locks and gun socks over the course of the day. And attendees said having them there was a fitting way to bring up the subject of suicide and firearms.

“You need to know your community, and you need to address it in a way that your community will accept it,” Hatch said.

If you or someone you know has talked about contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or use the online Lifeline Crisis Chat, both available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This story is part of a partnership that includes KUER, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

KUER, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

This story can be republished for free (details).

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