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Spokane conference addresses difficult topic of suicide

Catherine Perusse spoke at a suicide prevention conference Tuesday about the anguish of having two sons who killed themselves.

Their deaths came six years apart. At one point during the grieving process, Perusse – now chairwoman of Idaho’s Suicide Prevention Action Network – was so concerned about her husband’s depression that she stole the ammunition from his gun collection.

“Almost every home in North Idaho has access to guns,” said Perusse, a mental health counselor in Sandpoint. Her home was no exception. For two months, she confiscated the ammunition until her husband’s depression lifted.

Perusse shared her story at the conference held at Gonzaga University and organized by Suicide Prevention-Inland Northwest. The conference brought together health care professionals, family members, law enforcement and others to discuss the difficult topic of suicide.

For reasons that aren’t completely understood, suicide rates are consistently high in the West. About three people kill themselves each day in Washington. Idaho and Montana rank among the top 10 states nationally for deaths by suicide.

Older white men, those 85 and older, have a higher risk of suicide. So do Native American youth, military veterans and people who live in isolated rural communities, where resources for mental health treatment are limited.

In Washington, Idaho and Montana, more than half of suicides involve guns.

“Suicide is our most preventable form of death,” said Paul Quinnett, founder of the QPR Institute for Suicide Prevention in Spokane. “We can all be part of the solution.”

Washington is a leader in requiring mental health professionals and other care providers to receive training in suicide assessment and treatment. The law, enacted in 2012, was named for Matt Adler, a 40-year-old Seattle attorney who killed himself while battling depression and anxiety.

The law is aimed at helping professionals better identify patients at risk for suicide. But Quinnett said doctors, nurses and counselors still need to be more direct in asking about patients’ mental health and whether they are having suicidal thoughts. Many people who kill themselves see a primary care provider that same month. Family and friends can help, too, by recognizing signs of depression or crisis and seeking help for their loved ones.

“It’s everybody’s job to get to the place where they can identify the risk for suicide, just like they would (identify a heart attack) if someone dropped to the floor and clutched their heart,” said Mike Hogan of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

Discussion about suicide is becoming more open, but suicide still carries stigmas, speakers said.

Perusse, the Sandpoint counselor, was one of several speakers who urged conference participants to address unsecured guns in homes.

When Perusse encouraged the parents of a depressed teen to lock up their guns, they balked. “He’s been through firearm safety courses,” they told her. “He knows how to handle a gun.”

“There’s a real resistance from parents to the idea of suicide,” she said.

For many people, suicide is an impulse decision, said Elaine Frank, director of the Dartmouth College Injury Prevention Center in New Hampshire. Most spend less than an hour planning the suicide.

“Guns work quickly and irreversibly,” she said. “Consider temporary offsite storage if there is someone you are concerned about.”

But guns are a touchy topic in the Inland Northwest, where hunting is part of many families’ tradition and political ideology embraces Second Amendment rights, the speakers acknowledged.

Ursula Whiteside, a clinical psychologist and suicide researcher, said she tries to frame conversation around guns as “a public health message – like bike helmets.” A standard part of her message is recommending “that individuals who are experiencing depression or significant stress not have easy access to guns or pills.”

It’s an anti-suicide message that doesn’t force people into a showdown over gun rights, Whiteside said.

At the Post Falls Police Department, people can turn in their guns for safekeeping when they’re concerned about a suicide risk, said Police Chief Scot Haug. The guns are secured in the evidence room, and the owners can retrieve them later.

Robin Ball, owner of the Sharp-Shooting Indoor Range and Gun Shop, told speakers that gun rights advocates can find common ground with suicide prevention efforts. But, “you’re not going to get there unless you speak our language,” she said.

“This really needs to be a message from gun owners to gun owners,” Frank said.

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