What To Do (And Not To Do) When Your Child Comes Out To You
Self Injury Awareness
Stuck on Negative Thinking
Why is Therapy Valuable
You are Not Alone (Suicide is on the Rise): The Importance of Continuing Your Story
Suicide Survivor Loss
CARE-ing for a Friend/ Family Member with Suicidal Thoughts
Juanita Jensen grew up in a gun family. She doesn’t hunt, but believes in the sport and is used to having guns around.
And as the parents of five children, Juanita and her husband were careful to follow all the rules for firearm safety: Keep the guns separate from the bullets. Lock up everything. Enroll their teen boys in gun-safety classes so they could learn to hunt responsibly.
But despite all of their precautions, they realized just how tough it is to keep guns away from someone who shouldn’t have one.
Most Americans are unaware that suicides — not mass shootings, other murders or accidental gun discharges — account for the majority of gun deaths in the United States, according to a recent survey from APM Research Lab. As many as three-fifths of gun deaths in the U.S. are the result of people intentionally killing themselves.
And in Minnesota, the statistics are even worse: 4 out of 5 deaths by firearms are suicides.
Four years ago, when Jensen’s second oldest was 19, he had a psychotic break and ended up in the hospital. (He didn’t want to talk to MPR News for this story and asked that we not use his name. We agreed to respect his privacy.)
The hospital kept him for three days — what’s known as a 72-hour hold — to see if he might hurt himself or somebody else. Hospital staff didn’t say anything to him or his parents about guns when they sent him home. And with the family’s emphasis on gun safety, and Jensen’s worries about their son’s health, it didn’t occur to her.
“They don’t send you home with … a packet, you know, that said, ‘Listen, the hold is over. We’re gonna discharge him. Here are some meds, just things are good,’” she said.
That was in the spring. By the beginning of the summer, Jensen’s son was worse. Her husband was so concerned that he quietly took the guns — and the ammunition — to her brother’s house in another city.
Then one night in June of 2015, one of their sons woke them up with a gun. “Please do something with this,” she says he told them. He told his parents his brother was upstairs “trying to take his life.”
The 19-year-old had gone to Walmart and bought a shotgun, they learned. His brother had found him just in time.
Red flag laws
Seventeen states have passed red flag laws, which let families petition to have peoples’ guns taken away if there’s reason to believe that they would hurt somebody. In Minnesota, red flag bills have come up in the Legislature a few times, but none have gone through. Some states have seen a drop in suicides as a result of red flag laws.
The night he tried to kill himself, Jensen’s son ended up in the hospital and eventually was committed. That means he was under a court order to follow certain rules, including one that barred him from having firearms. In his case, it was the first time any kind of oversight about guns kicked in.
Commitments are handled at the county level; they require an elaborate set of rules that guarantee the person due process, including medical exams and a judge.
The problem is even though the statute says clearly that a person who is committed may not have guns, it doesn’t say how to get the guns away from the person. So, people like Theresa Couri, who helps handle commitments at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, are left trying to figure out what to do.
During the commitment process, her office sometimes finds out that the person has a gun or has access to a gun.
When that happens, Couri said, it’s important to get it away from the person. But doing that can be complicated.
“So, what my staff attorneys often do,” she said, “is contact a family member, they will contact a spouse, if it’s a young person, a roommate,” and ask them to go to the house — or wherever the weapon is — to retrieve it.
If they can’t find somebody close to the person, then attorneys call the local police and have them take the weapons.
“I don’t feel that doing nothing is appropriate, so our lawyers engage in activities that I think are consistent with the statute,” said Couri, who was not involved in the case of Jensen’s son. “The statute says a person committed is ineligible [to have a gun]. If we know there’s a gun, we should be taking some action, in concert with law enforcement, to do our best to effect that part of the statute.”
The other thing that happens when a person is committed, whether they are known to have access to a gun or not, is that the person’s name gets reported to the FBI. It’s then added to a confidential list that licensed gun dealers have to check before they sell somebody a gun.
Who can buy a gun?
Kory Krause, who owns the Frontiersman Sports gun shop in St. Louis Park, said would-be gun buyers are required to fill out a form that asks for the person’s identifying information. It seeks not just the basics like name, birth date and address, but also things like height, weight and race. And it includes a checklist of potential disqualifiers, including whether the person has been convicted of a felony or committed to a “mental institution.”
The gun shop submits the form to the FBI, which then has three days to respond, either giving permission for the person to buy, denying it, or asking for more time. The list is confidential so when a person is denied, neither the seller nor the buyer are told why. Krause said it’s rare that a person who knows he’ll be denied bothers to try buying a gun.
What does happen, though, is people who want to hurt themselves will occasionally come in to buy a weapon. And if they’re not on the list, then it’s up to Krause and his employees to recognize the potential danger and stop the sale.
Krause said he’s never gotten any official training to identify somebody in a mental health crisis, and that he and his employees rely on experience and intuition. They might get suspicious if, say, an old man comes in and wants a revolver and only one or two bullets, or if the person physically can’t operate the gun.
He said if he thinks a person might try to hurt himself, he’ll refuse to sell and call the police to check on the person. But he knows a person who is suicidal will at times slip through.
“We know that when they walk out that door, what they do with it could be good or bad,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate component of the business.”
There are other loopholes or gaps that let people get guns when they shouldn’t, including private sales, which aren’t subject to background checks.
Juanita Jensen’s son is doing better, following the rules of his treatment and living on his own. He could eventually petition the state to be allowed to have guns again.
This reporting is part of Call to Mind, our MPR initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingofSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
If you or someone you know has had guns taken away because of mental health concerns or if you have tried unsuccessfully to get guns taken away from somebody because of mental health concerns, we’d like to hear from you: email@example.com or 651-290-1061.
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Like many who have social media accounts, I regularly check my timelines and feeds for intriguing articles, updates and happenings. Two years ago, I was mindlessly scrolling through one of my accounts before going to bed and one post immediately stood out among the rest: It was a suicide note.
Frantically, I read my friend Mark’s post. It detailed his internal suffering over the years, which he no longer wanted to endure. The comment section grew at an alarming rate. People asked questions, both directly to Mark and to each other. Some people were pleading with him to reconsider. Others offered comments of hope.
Over the next few days, I saw something I did not expect. Hundreds of comments on Mark’s post evolved into a community of people coming together to help find Mark, who had gone missing. People used his previous posts on other social media platforms to piece together his possible location. Some contacted the authorities—and thankfully, those authorities located him before he took his life.
Social Media On The Rise
We live in a world driven by technology. We see the media regularly report on new apps for our smartphones and the latest trending celebrity tweets. Whether we’re commuting to work, studying in a coffee shop or spending time with our family and friends, being connected digitally is part of our lives. An entire generation of young people is growing up with devices in their hands, regularly engaging in social media.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2005 only 5% of American adults used at least one social media platform. That number has since grown significantly: Today, 70% of the public uses social media, with many people using more than one platform.
Some researchers are beginning to identify connections between online social networking and mental health concerns. Among these concerns are varying levels of self-esteem and addiction to social media, as well as the internet. However, it is uncertain whether signs and symptoms of mental health conditions are the causes or effects of using social media. Since each platform is different and new platforms continue to be introduced, future research is needed to assess the true effect of social media on mental health.
Identifying Mental Health Concerns Online
When used responsibly, social media can be used in positive ways. It can be used to promote mental health to a large audience. I’ve seen individuals share their personal stories of recovery, like those on NAMI.org at You Are Not Alone and OK2Talk. I’ve seen mental health writers connect with one another on Twitter. And as with my friend Mark, during times of crisis, social media can even save lives.
On platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, users now have options for getting a friend help. If a user thinks a friend is in danger of self-harm or suicide, they can report their concerns by going to the social media websites’ Help Centers. These online Help Centers have dedicated content about suicide and self-harm prevention, which include online resources and phone numbers for suicide hotlines around the world.
The most helpful feature I’ve seen instituted recently is on Instagram. Users can anonymously flag posts by other users that have content about self-harm and suicide. That user then receives a message encouraging them to speak with a friend, contact a helpline or seek professional help. The same message appears for people who are regularly searching self-harm- or suicide-related content on Instagram.
Recent research by the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Office notes that personal social media accounts “can provide an important window into a person’s state of mind.” At the Secretary of the Army Symposium on Suicide Prevention in mid-January 2017, military leaders, mental health professionals and companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn came together to see how social media can be used to connect those in need to care and resources.
How Can I Help?
With social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat dominating our screen time, it’s wise to assume that social media will continue to be a primary method of communication. Therefore, it’s up to us to look out for mental health warning signs while on social media so we are better prepared to assist a friend in need.
If you see any of the following behavior online, it may be time to step in and contact your friend directly to see how you can help:
- Cyberbullying, which includes:
a. harassing messages or comments
b. fake accounts made to impersonate someone else
c. someone posting unwanted pictures or images of another person
- Negative statements about themselves, even if it sounds like they are joking, such as
a. “I’m a waste of space.”
b. “No one cares about me.”
c. “I seriously hate myself.”
- Negative leading statements with little to no context that prompt others to respond, such as:
a. “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through.”
b. “Today was the worst day ever.”
c. “It’s like everyone is against me.”
If someone you know is in immediate danger—for example, they talk about a specific plan for harming themselves—contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. This lifeline can support the individual and their family members, and has the ability to connect with local law enforcement, if necessary. If a person has attempted self-harm or is injured, call 911 immediately.
If the threat of physical danger is not immediate, here are some things you can do to help:
- Report the content on the social media website’s Help Center;
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255; or
- Reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting the word “NAMI” to 741741 (standard data rates may apply).
As you scroll through your social media feeds, be mindful of what others post. Being educated about available resources is important for those of us who promote mental health, but knowing when to reach out to a friend who may be experiencing a mental health crisis is even more important: You just might save a life.
Ryann Tanap is manager of social media and digital assets at NAMI.