The conversation about suicides in the U.S. needs to include guns. Here's why.

Not all suicides are completed with a gun — but in the U.S., most are.

Each time a high-profile celebrity dies by suicide, we seem to start a fresh conversation about suicide statistics in America.

In half of U.S. states, suicide rates have climbed 30% or more in the past two decades. Only Nevada saw a decline during that time — a mere 1%, which still puts the state higher than the national average.


Questions of why and what we can do about suicide dominate, leading to discussions revolving around mental health stigma and access to mental health care. And, indeed, those are vital pieces of the puzzle.

But there's another piece we don't talk about enough. If we want to reduce suicide statistics, we have to include the most common and lethal means of suicide in the U.S.: self-inflicted gunshot.

Research shows that when it comes to suicide, method matters. And firearm is by far the most deadly.

In some ways, focusing on a handful of celebrity suicides distracts from the research on U.S. suicide rates overall.

While we can't always know why Americans die by suicide, we do know how: Suicide by firearm kills more people than all other suicide methods combined. And while women are three times more likely to attempt suicide than men, men are four times as likely to die by suicide as women.

Why the discrepancy? All signs point to the fact that men tend to choose more violent and lethal methods of suicide.

And guns are by far the most lethal means. Of non-firearm suicide attempts, about 90% are unsuccessful, while about 90% of firearm suicides are successful. That makes access to guns a prime factor in suicide risk.

Many suicides are actually impulsive acts. That matters too.

One thing that gets missed in our discourse on suicide is that while some suicide attempts are a culmination of years of internal struggle with mental illness, many — and perhaps most — are not.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, one-third to four-fifths of people who attempt suicide are reacting to a current major stressor, not taking a long-premeditated action.

But suicide by firearm doesn't afford people a chance to change their mind or get a second chance. Most people who attempt suicide don't really want to end their lives; they want to end their pain. A gun allows a suicidal person to take split-second action, whereas most other means allow a person to stop mid-attempt or for another person to intervene.

While we're addressing how to prevent suicidal ideation, we need to consider easy access to the most lethal means of suicide.

Research shows that having access to a gun drastically increases the likelihood of a successful suicide attempt.

According to a Harvard University analysis, states with the highest rates of gun ownership had rates of gun suicide 3.7 times higher for men and 7.9 times higher for women than those with lowest gun ownership. Other methods of suicide were about equal.

For all demographics, the easier guns are to access, the higher the risk of completed suicide.

And it's not because gun owners are more suicidal. Catherine Barber, director of the suicide prevention effort Means Matter, said:

"When we compared people in gun-owning households to people not in gun-owning households, there was no difference in terms of rates of mental illness or in terms of the proportion saying that they had seriously considered suicide. Actually, among gun owners, a smaller proportion say that they had attempted suicide. So it's not that gun owners are more suicidal. It's that they're more likely to die in the event that they become suicidal, because they are using a gun."

In light of the facts, we clearly need to do more to curb access to guns for people at risk for suicide.

If we're serious about suicide prevention in the U.S., we have to include gun control in the conversation.

And conversely, if we're serious about reducing our gun death rate, we need to include suicide in our discussions. In the U.S., the statistics are strongly linked, a fact we shouldn't overlook.  

Family

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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