Politically speaking, firearms are a divisive topic in this country. Practically speaking, they are the most lethal method of attempted suicide; about 85 percent of suicide attempts using guns end in death, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. As a nation, we need to talk about guns in terms of keeping people safe during times of personal crisis. September is Suicide Prevention Month, and I can think of no better time than now to have this conversation.
I oversee suicide prevention at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a program that includes the Veterans Crisis Line and a network of suicide prevention coordinators at VA Medical Centers across the country. At VA, our mission, first and foremost, is to keep Veterans, Servicemembers and their loved ones safe. This means that Veterans Crisis Line responders must have very direct conversations with callers about their firearms.
When it comes to guns, our priority at the Veterans Crisis Line is and has always been safety. If a caller assures us that they can stay safe, and is not at imminent risk of harming himself or others, we accept that assertion, whether or not they have a firearm. If the caller is at imminent risk of taking his or her own life, we will do whatever we can to intervene.
Earlier this year, VA released a two-minute video underscoring why gun safety matters.
As important as the Veterans Crisis Line is, we don’t just wait for people to contact us. Across the country, VA suicide prevention coordinators conduct firearm safety training; many also distribute free gun locks — no questions asked. Their message — the same as the one in this video — is simple: basic precautions to secure guns in the home can mean the difference between a tragic outcome and a life saved.
Promoting safe firearm practices is an important step in preventing suicides. During Suicide Prevention Month, I am hopeful that people in crisis — especially those who own guns — will feel more comfortable calling the Veterans Crisis Line to connect with support and find hope.
The Veterans Crisis Line connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring VA responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255, and press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Caitlin Thompson, Ph.D., is the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Deputy Director in Suicide Prevention. Prior to this role, she spent five years as the clinical care coordinator for the National Veterans Crisis Line and Veterans Chat service. A licensed clinical psychologist, she is assistant professor at the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry where she completed a post-doctoral fellowship in suicide research. Dr. Thompson completed her pre-doctoral internship and some post-doctoral work at the Denver VA Medical Center. In 2012, she spent five months detailed as the VA liaison for the DoD’s Defense Suicide Prevention Office. Dr. Thompson completed her bachelor’s degree in music at Brown University and her master’s degree and doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia.