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In push to reduce teen suicides, a Johnson County official hands out gun locks

Editor’s Note: This is one of 14 different perspectives The Journal is reporting on the topic of guns and public safety in Kansas. Click here to find more.

The director of the Johnson County Mental Health Center, appalled by the number of teen suicides in his county, has put his agency in the forefront of saving young lives. But no tactic he is trying has gotten as much attention as the distribution of free gun locks, which can deprive a child of a particularly deadly means to end his or her life.

Touting responsible gun ownership wasn’t something Tim DeWeese expected to make headlines about when he began working in mental health.

He also never expected Johnson County to become the unwelcome epicenter of teen suicide in Kansas. After seven suicides in 2017, the suicide rate nearly doubled within the first six months of 2018. The toll felt enormous when one high school lost two students to suicide within two days.

Suicide often goes undiscussed in the polarizing gun debate. But the number of lives lost is staggering. Almost two-thirds of all gun deaths in America are suicides.

Men ages 41 to 60 are at especially high risk. It’s the second-leading cause of death among those 15 to 24, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

So many deaths so close to home forced the mental health center, the Johnson County Suicide Coalition, school communities and others to take a hard look at their strategies and come up with new approaches.

“I think people have just let the silos go,” he says. “What we’ve been doing isn’t working.” DeWeese and others have taken one of the county’s ugliest statistics and held major news conferences nearly every month in the name of education and progress.

The collective purpose has inspired some innovative and comprehensive approaches. All six Johnson County school districts began monthly meetings to share best practices and ideas. Many groups – law enforcement, schools, faith-based groups, private foundations and hospitals – have made progress.The groups implemented several tools including better counseling at schools, summer counseling during summer months when teens are more isolated, more suicide-awareness programming within schools and even targeted surveys that identified more than seven children at risk for suicide who needed to be immediately hospitalized.

For its part, the mental health center has taken several steps, including a free gun lock initiative that drew considerable media attention. Police departments have been giving locks away for years. But critics on both sides of the gun debate questioned if this was outside the scope of the mental health department.

The mere idea causes the pitch of DeWeese’s voice to steadily rise as he explains the gravity of the situation to the unaware.

“I’m tired of young people dying,” he says with a firm voice. “That typically tends to kind of take the air out of both sides.”

It’s turned critics into supporters. It’s united gun advocates and gun-control activists.

DeWeese carefully avoids the gun debate and political fray. But he is vocal about his push to save lives and build common ground.

“What gets us to the middle is that young people stop dying. That’s what’s gotten us to get to the middle,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you want to own guns or not, just be responsible with them and lock them so that people don’t have access to them that shouldn’t have access to them.”

Guns are considered the most lethal form of suicide. About 85 percent of those who attempt suicide by gun die. Suicide rates are higher, the CDC points out in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, in states like Kansas with a high number of guns per capita. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence points out that “states with the highest firearm prevalence had 1.9 times more suicide deaths and 3.8 times more firearm suicide deaths than states with the lowest firearm prevalence. This relationship persisted even after taking into account other factors that could influence suicide rates, such as mental illness, alcohol dependence or abuse, illicit substance dependence or abuse, unemployment, and poverty rates.”

Having access to a gun can provide an impulsive answer to a temporary crisis.

Alarm bells sounded last year when a CDC report indicated suicide rates in Kansas increased by 45 percent – one of the biggest jumps in the country – from 1999 to 2016.

DeWeese couldn’t stand by any longer.

What DeWeese learned from others is that presenting barriers to lethal means works. It might not reduce a person’s desire, but interrupting the thought is crucial.

Finding the key to a gun lock might take a minute. Finding bolt cutters could take longer. That window of time might be enough for a spontaneous notion to cease. Maybe someone will be interrupted or have second thoughts.

“Anything we can do to create that barrier, create that minute or two minutes of time, then we potentially have the opportunity to save a life,” he says.

About 45 percent of Kansans keep firearms in and around their home, according to a 2017 survey. Guns are stored loaded in only about 34 percent of those households. But 59 percent of those loaded firearms are stored unlocked, according to the 2017 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

The gun lock giveaway has been more popular than DeWeese could have dreamed. More than 3,000 were handed out in one year.

The locks sit in a basket at each mental health center location with pamphlets detailing safe gun storage. The locks are out in the open rather than behind a desk.

“We didn’t want people to have to ask. They could just pick one up. In that sense there’s no judgment or anything like that,” he says.

DeWeese stresses that his program doesn’t question anyone’s gun rights.

“It’s just simply saying, ‘Hey, we believe that being a responsible gun owner means that you keep your gun locked and that, more importantly it can save a life in regards to suicide,’” he says. “I think a lot of times when we hear gun arguments, it’s that people who have guns are responsible gun owners. The problem is, if that’s the case, then why do we see so many suicides by gun? These aren’t people that are going out and stealing guns. These are people that have access to firearms immediately and they use them.”

A multifaceted approach to reduce suicides

It’s hardly the only approach. Johnson County started a comprehensive strategy that DeWeese believes will make a difference.

The Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition, which has partnerships with law enforcement, schools, faith-based groups and hospitals, was created in 2012 by the mental health agency when it became clear that Johnson County’s overall suicide losses for all ages were unacceptable.

The group has stepped up its efforts in the last several years and offered several tangible programs.

The coalition helped Shawnee Mission schools start a suicide prevention program and summer counseling to help children who might otherwise be isolated.

It also assisted Olathe schools with a Signs of Suicide prevention survey for adolescents that resulted in hundreds of students asking for help. More than seven children were hospitalized.

It didn’t surprise DeWeese.

“We put a tremendous amount of pressure on young people in Johnson County,” he says. The push to be the best is constant. Kids are expected to achieve high grades and attend the most prestigious college. Youth sports begin so young that by kindergarten some children participate in elite sport teams complete with tryouts.

A loss of civility contributes, as does bullying. While hardly a new problem, social media and cell phones have taken bullying to a new level of toxicity.

“Growing up, I got picked on because I was the fat kid. Today, you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, thanks to social media. It’s pervasive.” he says. “Instead of getting called a fat kid, today what happens is people get told: ‘If I were you, I’d go kill myself. Why are you even alive?’”

DeWeese also fears that the quest to be perfect among high-achieving Johnson County families doesn’t allow failure to be valued.

“Allowing kids to make mistakes – learn from those mistakes and learn to change and grow as a human being – that’s how you build resilience,” he says.

On DeWeese’s agenda, one item is non-negotiable

Building a collective purpose means that, for DeWeese, almost any idea is negotiable. There’s one imperative, however, that he will never back down from. Guns should be safely stored so children and those with mental illness – undiagnosed or not – cannot get to them.

His doggedness on that point has led a few people to see an ulterior motive: Perhaps he’s secretly advocating against conceal and carry. One critic argued: “How do you expect me to conceal and carry a gun when it’s locked?”

That’s when DeWeese knew he needed to be crystal clear.

“Well, that’s absurd. If you’re carrying a weapon and it’s on your person, then you have control over that,” he says. “What I’m saying is that when your weapon or your gun is not in your personal possession, it needs to be locked.”

As for what Kansans should be talking about, DeWeese thinks they should talk about safe firearm storage. Parents should consider safe storage beyond their own homes. They should think about places where teens and younger children hang out after school or have playdates. It’s crucial to store guns safely or off-site when someone is depressed or suicidal.

He wants people to reach out to one another and reduce the stigma of asking for help. Mental health agencies can’t do it alone.

DeWeese thought long and hard about whether handing out gun locks created a political firestorm that he didn’t have the ability to back away from.

“At the end of the day I went with what I felt was the right thing to do in regards to saving lives,” he says. “In my mind this isn’t a political issue for me. The issue for me is trying to reduce the number of suicides that we see in the state of Kansas.”

 

A version of this article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit https://www.amazon.com/Journal-Kansas-Civic-Leadership-Development/dp/B00DHU4X44/.

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