SHERIDAN — About halfway through suicide prevention month, the Violence Policy Center released the results of a study Wednesday that shows Wyoming has the second highest rate of suicides and gun suicides in the nation. Montana had the highest rates and Alaska ranked third.
Guns were involved in 68% of suicides in Montana, 63% of suicides in Wyoming and 60% of suicides in Alaska.
The analysis used the most recent available data — from 2017 — from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. The study only included completed suicides where firearms were involved, no other methods or suicide attempts.
The study includes the overall suicide rate per 100,000 people, gun suicide rate per 100,000 people, overall number of suicides, overall number of gun suicides, percentage of suicides involving guns and household gun ownership in each state.
The VPC said Montana, Wyoming and Alaska have weak gun violence prevention laws and higher rates of gun ownership than states that ranked lower with rates of gun suicides.
“The VPC defined states with ‘weak’ gun violence prevention laws as those that add little or nothing to federal law and have permissive laws governing the open or concealed carrying of firearms in public,” the VPC said in a press release.
Strong state laws add significant regulations to federal law, restrict access to assault weapons, set safety standards or require permitting for purchasing firearms and restrict open and concealed carry in public, according to the VPC.
The study said the states with the lowest rates of gun suicide include New York, where guns were involved in 26% of suicides, New Jersey, 26%, and Massachusetts, 22%. The VPC said these states have lower rates of gun ownership and strong gun violence prevention laws.
Firearms were used in 70% of suicides investigated by the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office from 2010 to 2019, according to the SCSO.
Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson said it’s important to look at the whole picture when discussing factors contributing to incidents of suicide.
For example, suicide attempts using firearms have a higher completion rate compared to other means, he said.
Economic factors and mental health issues that people in Montana, Wyoming and Alaska face, separate from the means by which a person attempts suicide, should be considered, Thompson said.
Rates of suicide deaths are highest among middle-aged white men, and white men accounted for about 70% of suicide deaths in 2017 nationwide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Suicide rates are also high among veterans.
Wyoming is about 92% white, 51% male, as has about 50,000 veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Edgar Pretty On Top, suicide prevention coordinator with the Sheridan Veteran’s Affairs Health Care System, said the suicide prevention team at the Sheridan VA provides free gun locks as one of their suicide prevention outreach efforts.
It is a harsh reality that firearms are a factor to high rates of suicide in Wyoming, Pretty On Top said. He encourages people to access help and works to eliminate stigma about accessing mental health care.
Once a gun lock is in place, having to find a key to unlock a firearm can be enough of an intervention to save a person who is considering taking their life using that firearm, Pretty On Top said.
Gun locks are offered with no questions asked, he said. The suicide prevention team works within existing conditions, including high rates of gun ownership, to eliminate veteran suicide attempts and deaths in Sheridan County.
In observance of suicide prevention month, the Sheridan VA is encouraging the public to show their support to end veteran suicide by participating in the campaign #BeThere.
“Suicide is a complex national public health issue that affects communities nationwide, with more than 45,000 Americans, including more than 6,000 veterans, dying by suicide every year,” said a Sheridan VA press release.
Community members can show their support in a variety of ways, from taking action through their organizations to simply checking in with someone about how they are doing, the Sheridan VA release said.
Post Commander Scott Height approached the VA to host an event on the Sheridan VA campus for veterans who are living on campus while receiving treatment, to show veterans there is a community supporting them outside the VA, the release said.
Alex Lee, owner of Lee Metal Works, received the Sheridan VA’s first Community Veteran Employment Award for supporting veterans through hiring practices of the business.
The Sheridan VA release said some ways community members can “Be There” for veterans include sending a check-in text, cooking them dinner, educating themselves about warning signs for suicide and learning to respond with care and compassion.
Online resources to learn about suicide prevention include the SAVE training, Veterans Crisis Line website, VA social media safety toolkit and the VA Coaching into Care program.
Pretty On Top said the SAVE program teaches people to understand the Signs of suicidal ideation; learn to appropriately Ask someone if they are considering taking their life; Validate the person’s experience and listen; and Encourage and Expedite the best treatment for them.