DoD starts interagency suicide prevention campaign aimed at firearms

The Defense Department is beginning a new effort this month to reinforce safer gun and medication storage tools in an attempt to stop service member suicides.

Karin Orvis, director of the Pentagon’s suicide prevention office, told Congress on Wednesday that DoD will be using a suite of evidence-based methods to keep service members and veterans from impulsively reaching for lethal means.

Orvis told members of the House Armed Services Committee that adding time and distance between an individual’s suicide risk and lethal means can be lifesaving. She added that DoD’s efforts will supplement other efforts, such as training nonmedical counselors, health care professionals and family members about safe storage.

The campaign is an interagency effort between DoD and the departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, and the Office of Emergency Medical Services within the Transportation Department.

The White House released a military and veteran prevention strategy last November that specified that gun and medication safety would be a priority. That strategy states the agencies will “jointly create a plan for addressing lethal means safety awareness, education, training, and program evaluation. The agencies will work together to identify, develop, and test tailored messaging for a coordinated lethal means safety public education campaign.”

It then says the agencies will develop public service announcements, use paid advertisements on social media, utilize toolkits developed by industry partners and create multi-state storage maps to help people find where they can safely store firearms away from their homes.

Craig Bryan, director of the suicide prevention program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Congress firearms are a clear danger for people with suicidal ideation. “Almost 70% of military suicides and two thirds of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides. Half of all suicides are from guns, the two are intimately connected,” he said. “We need to be talking about how we can change the environment to limit or restrict convenient access to firearms, in the same way that we limit and restrict access to driving your vehicle when you’re intoxicated.”

The military has seen increased suicides in recent years.

Nearly 500 service members and about 6,200 veterans died by suicide in 2019.

The hearing coincided with a report on military and veteran suicides published by the Center for American Progress.

That study advocates for reducing access to firearms, prioritizing mental health treatment at military and VA clinics and passing laws that allow family members and police to temporarily remove firearms from at-risk individuals.

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