By Debbie Plotnick, Vice President of State and Federal Advocacy at Mental Health America
Everyone is scared. People are showing how scared they are in many ways. At Mental Health America (MHA) we’re seeing a tremendous increase in the number of people visiting our website for information on COVID-19, and in those that connect to MHA screening. After people take a screen, they are following through to the resources in Screening to Supports, which we call S2S. In this time of uncertainty and fear MHA is grateful to be able to provide information and resources, including constantly updating Covid-19 resources and our S2S platform. Not surprisingly the numbers of people coming to take a screen - especially the anxiety screen - are way up. So too is the level of severity, with almost 76% of people taking the anxiety screen scoring in the moderate to severe range.
Using MHA resources and screening is not the only way people are addressing their COVID-19 anxiety. MHA’s associate member organization Walk the Talk America (WWTA) notes that all over the country people are increasingly rushing out to purchase firearms, often for the first time.
But as firearm expert and founder and president of WTTA Mike Sodini emphatically states “having a gun does not magically make you or your family safe.” It may in fact, Mike explains, without proper training and in-home safety precautions, make your family less safe. Mike warns that knee-jerk reaction to purchase a firearm to quell COVID-19 anxiety increases the risk of what is called a negligent discharge, such as when a young child or teen inappropriately accesses a firearm. And all of us at MHA and WTTA are worried that completed suicides will increase.
WTTA was founded to break down barriers between people that own firearms and those that need and provide mental health services and supports. MHA and WTTA have been working together over the last two years to dispel the misbeliefs around mental health and firearm ownership. We’re working together to help people talk to each other, not at each other. We’re working to stop policies that discriminate against people with past or present mental health needs that discourage people that own or use firearms, such as collectors, sportsmen, hunters and those that use firearms in their work (like police officers) from reaching out for help when they need it. MHA and WTTA have also been engaging with mental health providers to talk to the people they serve that own firearms, without being judgmental or alarming. It’s not been easy to get people to take part in such frank dialogues, but it has remarkably well-received.
MHA and WTTA have very clear shared goals: to reduce the number of people that die by suicide using firearms, and to increase the safety of all that reside in the US households where firearms are present. We know that suicide is almost always an impulsive act, and that we can expect that the extreme duress associated with the COVID-19 crisis may increases the number of people that attempt suicide - and die by suicide - which already is the 2nd leading cause of death for people age 24 and younger.
When it comes to suicide, means do matter. People may not realize that two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides. Having access to a firearm greatly increases the chances that a suicide attempt will end in death. Eighty-five percent of people who attempt suicide with a firearm do die. Of those teens and young people that die by suicide that involved a firearm – 90% --the firearm that they used belonged to a parent or someone else residing in their home.
This is why the nationwide panic buying in response to the COVID-19 crisis is of great concern to WTTA and MHA. Social distancing will make it less likely that people will undertake proper firearm training, and people may not take the time to put in place what should be common senses measures, such as purchasing personal safes and locks for long guns (which are not required by federal law) for the firearms in their homes.
Safe storage is essential for everyone at all times. So too is proper training on how to use a firearm even though this might be difficult due to the social distancing orders. It’s important to take an in-person safety course as soon as possible and in the meantime to look for online training. WTTA believes it is essential to also by a quick-access safe.
WTTA and MHA want to remind everyone to not be afraid to reach out when they (or someone in their home) needs help or is showing signs of increasing anxiety or depression. Screening may be accessed at MHA and WTTA websites.
Most importantly, don’t panic and stay safe!