Better gun messaging could reduce military suicides

SAN ANTONIO — Service members who die by suicide are the most likely to use a gun, but a new study shows the right message from the right person — especially in law enforcement — can convince troops to secure their weapons safely and possibly save lives.

“What we found was that when the law enforcement officer was delivering the message, an overwhelming majority of servicemen said, ‘At home, I’m willing to use locking devices and things. like that. I’m much more likely to,” said Craig Bryan, an Ohio State University researcher and professor of psychiatry who led the study.

He noted that doctors frequently raised the issue in their practices.

“It’s not that medical professionals shouldn’t talk about it – it’s just that it’s not the messenger who is most likely to motivate gun owners to do the things we want them to do,” Bryan said.

The study, published this month, is Bryan’s latest research to convince troops to stockpile their firearms. He spoke at the seventh annual San Antonio Combat PTSD at the Briscoe Western Art Museum.

The Department of Defense’s annual report on suicide in the military for calendar year 2021 found that active, reserve, and National Guard suicide rates were similar to those of the U.S. population most years in taking into account age and gender differences.

The report revealed that 70% of suicides among the military were committed with a firearm.

All troop suicides
– 519

Active service component
– 328

Reserve component
– 74

National Guard
– 117

Reserve component
– 4.3 suicides per 100,000 soldiers

Reserve component
– 21.2 suicides per 100,000 soldiers

National Guard
– 26.4 suicides per 100,000 soldiers

– 14 suicides per 100,000 people

The Pentagon has a military crisis line for soldiers, veterans, and families. It includes a confidential hotline, 988, press 1; a website,

and a text messaging number, 838255, for assistance.

Troops in Europe should call 00800 1273 8255 or DSN 118. Those in Korea should call 0808 555 118 or DSN 118.

A military source
provides aid in the mainland
United States at (800) 342-9647 and abroad at this number or at (703) 253-7599.

SOURCES: Department of Defense, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Although researchers have yet to find a way to predict or prevent suicides, reducing self-inflicted firearm injuries could have a huge impact because most deaths in the military involve firearms. . In his study, Bryan noted that more than half of the 45,979 people who died by suicide in the United States in 2020 did so with a firearm.


Military suicides in the age of COVID have reached a new high

There have been signs of modest progress, with the Pentagon saying this month that suicides among troops have declined over the past year. The Department of Defense said rate comparisons between military and civilian populations take into account gender and age differences and that the active component rate was similar to that of the nation as a whole – except in 2012 and 2020.

The rate among active duty component troops dropped from 2020 to 2021, but was similar to 2019. It had seen a slight increase over the past 10 years.

When it comes to American suicides involving guns, the numbers are even more pronounced in the armed forces, fostering a gun culture. There, 318 of the 498 suicides reported in 2019 were caused by firearms. The latest Pentagon report found that 7 in 10 service members who committed suicide in 2021 did so with a gun. Spouses and dependents of service members who died by suicide were also the most likely to use a firearm, according to the Department of Defense’s annual report on suicide in the military.

Finding a way to reduce firearm suicides is considered the “third rail” of research in the field and has been the focus of research by Bryan, a former faculty member of the Center for Health Sciences at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Bryan found that 1 in 3 veterans who owned firearms stored at least one loaded and unlocked.

More worryingly, among military service members in primary care, 86% of those who owned guns and recently had suicidal thoughts stored them charged and unlocked. The finding was replicated within the National Guard, he said in the study, with those with “lifetime” suicidal thoughts 2.5 times more likely to stockpile loaded and unlocked firearms.

Although there is a clear association between guns and suicide, research suggests that it is important to take the perspective of gun owners with a focus on safety and protection. from home.

In his study, Bryan created a large, nationally representative sample of gun-owning service members and randomized them to display different visual messages about safe gun storage for suicide prevention. Each message shared basic components – the same image, messenger’s name, and text regarding the need for safe gun storage.

The messages varied, however, on three components: the messenger’s profession – such as a primary care physician, security forces, or combat controller; the presence of text validating the point of view of gun owners; and the presence of text validating the reader for the protection of the house.

The study created public service health promotion visual advertisements like those seen on billboards and in newspapers. It included various messages from the police, combat arms troops and medical providers in hopes of convincing gun owners to store their guns safely, hand them over to friends or give them away. secure in an armory.

Longtime Pentagon suicide researcher, now at the University of Southern California, retired Col. Carl Castro, welcomed Bryan’s report.

“It looks extremely promising,” he said. “Secure storage is something that resonates with everyone, but it’s not about taking someone’s guns away, and so it makes perfect sense to emphasize secure storage.”

Other researchers at the San Antonio conference, hosted by the STRONG STAR Consortium and UT Health San Antonio, discussed topics such as cognitive behavioral therapy for veterans with post-traumatic headaches and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Two speakers, James Pennebaker and Brian P. Marx, described what they had learned about the impact of expressive writing and writing exposure therapy for treating PTSD and other issues.


‘Recognize this as a crisis’: SAPD suicide death toll raises concern

The conference came just a week after the Pentagon reported the suicides of 519 service members, 133 spouses and 69 dependents in 2021. One in 6 spouses used a firearm in their deaths, while 55% of dependents did.

“While we are working hard on this issue, we still have a long way to go,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last year. “I think we have to start by removing the stigma around mental health issues.”

The number of suicides over the decades has been a dismal part of the conversation. The latest mark was higher than the 505 suicides recorded in 2019 for active duty, reserve and National Guard components, but
below previous record
of 582 set in 2020 and yet another high, 541, in 2018.

“I think the data is going in the right direction, meaning fewer suicide deaths,” Castro said. “It’s always a plus, but it’s still far too high, and you have to stay focused because suicide rates can fluctuate. You want to make sure it’s not a one-time event and really represents a downtrend and not just a random data point. »

Defense officials established the Army’s $50 million Study to Assess Military Risk and Resilience – STARRS – and established a Defense Suicide Prevention Office in 2011. A few years earlier , the Pentagon launched UT Health’s STRONG STAR, a multidisciplinary consortium to study PTSD.

The UT Health Consortium is the nation’s largest combat-related research effort dedicated to conditions such as PTSD and suicide prevention.

“There are still many, many gaps, but for the area of ​​suicide, for example, there are two, three or four new approaches that are being explored,” said retired Lt. Col. Air Force Alan Peterson, who in 2008 became UT Health San Antonio Consortium Director and Chief of UT Health’s Behavioral Medicine Division.

“It’s not going to solve the problem for sure, but hopefully we can take some interesting new approaches to maybe do even better at managing this over time.”

Peterson cautioned against overreacting to the latest numbers, likening it to dwelling too much on day-to-day changes in the stock market. He insisted on taking a long-term approach to the issue.

“Rather than focusing on the overall numbers, we’re learning more about the whys and hows, and that’s going to give us the opportunity to maybe target some areas that we haven’t targeted before, so the hope is that we can turn those numbers around. But it’s more important to focus on what knowledge we have, what gaps we have identified, and what needs are coming up in trying to solve this problem,” Peterson said.

Bryan lamented the tendency of media and institutions to focus on annual changes in suicide statistics, echoing Peterson’s belief that this does not help researchers find lasting solutions. But if messages about safe weapons storage take hold, he said, it could have a “huge impact” as reducing access to highly lethal methods of suicide is a crucial step in reducing deaths. .

“I think it’s a breakthrough in the sense that we’re starting to figure out how to do this,” Bryan said. “I think there is an increased focus on the role of firearms. The data has always been there – it’s just that we kind of separated suicide prevention from gun violence.

“We’ve really started to recognize that we need to talk about guns when it comes to suicide prevention…And so the most important aspect of that…I really think it teaches us how to do that. this,” he added.

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About Margaret L. Portillo

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