Myths abound about why people take their own lives. Research shows that, in most cases, it is an impulsive act, not the inevitable culmination of a long period of thought or brooding. Put another way, many suicides happen during rare “spikes” of despair.
A 2009 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry looked at people hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Forty-eight percent said they first started thinking about making that attempt within 10 minutes of the act. “It doesn’t mean they had a happy life—happy, happy, happy—and then one piece of bad news and 10 minutes later they were attempting,” says Harvard Chan’s Cathy Barber. “They may have been struggling for a long time with a mental health or substance abuse problem. But at that moment—say, when the divorce papers came—the person said, ‘Oh my God, I’m out of here.’”
According to Barber, “Before you get to that spike, you need to recognize that it could happen, that you’re in a vulnerable period, and you need to say, ‘Now is not a good time to have guns around.’” Fine-grained public health data in Utah can usefully inform conversations about firearms, particularly in the health care setting. Currently, for example, doctors in many hospitals regularly distribute cable gun locks when working with at-risk patients and families. While these can be useful safety devices for young children, or in lieu of other methods, they can easily be disabled.
What might be more effective, says Morissa Sobelson, is deploying data to tailor conversations to a family’s specific situation, so that health care providers can confidently and comfortably discuss more secure approaches, such as temporarily storing guns away from the home until an at-risk family member has recovered, or using a gun safe or lockbox to which the vulnerable family member has no access.