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Opinion: Honor the Judd Family’s Bravery and Candor by Continuing the Conversation around Gun Suicide

By Colleen Creighton, Director of End Family Fire, a program from the Ad Council and Brady bringing awareness to Family Fire, and Becky Stoll, Vice President of Crisis and Disaster Management for Centerstone, a nonprofit health system specializing in mental health and substance use disorder services.

Ashley Judd’s heartbreaking revelation that her mother, Naomi Judd, took her own life with a firearm is a tragic reminder of the pain that millions of Americans who have lost a loved one to suicide live with every day. This was a difficult conversation to have with the world, and the Judd family should be applauded for bravely and candidly telling Naomi’s story. There should be no stigma around discussing mental illness, something that Naomi did throughout her life, and sharing these stories helps to save others who are struggling.

And, sadly, we know that there are millions of people struggling, including many in Tennessee. Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death for Americans and in the last 10 years the national suicide rate has increased by over 12 percent. 45,979 people died of suicide and an additional 1.2 million attempted suicide in 2020. In Tennessee, 1,220 died by suicide last year. While researchers are still analyzing these 2020 numbers, one thing is clear: firearms remain the most lethal means of suicide and the firearm suicide rate continues to increase nationwide and in Tennessee.

An average of 65 people die of gun suicide every day across the country. Firearm suicide, a form of Family Fire, a death or injury resulting from a shooting involving a gun in the home, accounts for fifty percent of suicide deaths despite being used in five percent of suicide attempts. This makes sense: guns are uniquely lethal and so a suicide attempt with a firearm will likely end in death. In fact, access to a gun increases the risk of death by suicide by 300 percent.

Tennessee’s suicide rate and firearm suicide rate are well above national averages, 18.6 percent and 16.9 percent, respectively, and 62.9 percent of suicide deaths in Tennessee last year were firearm suicides. Nationally, rural, white, and older Americans are at particular risk for suicide. Over the last decade, the overall suicide rate among white people over 65 has increased by 16 percent, while the rate of suicide is highest in middle-aged white men. For white women over 65 in Tennessee, like Naomi Judd, the overall suicide rate has increased by a staggering 83.5 percent over the last decade, while the firearm suicide rate has increased by 68.7 percent. 

In each of these data points, the link between access to a firearm and a lethal result is clear. This is particularly acute in Tennessee, where a reported 51.6 percent of adults live in a home with at least one firearm.

So, what can you do about this? First and foremost, the kinds of conversations that the Judds have started are critical to saving lives. There should be no stigma around mental illness. Reach out to friends and family who are or seem to be struggling. Check in with each other and follow up. If firearms are present in the home or part of the equation some way, start a conversation about how those guns are stored. Simple solutions like properly storing a gun can create a physical barrier between someone in crisis and their firearm, giving them time to reevaluate or to seek help. It seems like a small thing, but research shows that this change can truly save lives. Of course every situation is unique and no one solution is perfect. Individuals in crisis or friends and families with concerns should consult local organizations, like Centerstone, for help connecting with additional or more specific resources.

The fact is that suicide can be preventable and that removing access to lethal means such as firearms can save lives. Over 90 percent of people who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide. The Judd’s have done an immense public service in coming forward with their story. We must honor their actions by continuing this conversation.

If you are in crisis or know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

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