If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org. You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the crisis text line on 741741.
Bryan Barks is a writer and mental health advocate in Baltimore.
Despite the tireless work of mental health professionals and suicide prevention advocates, tens of thousands of Americans die by suicide each year. Although suicide is a complex problem with no single solution, its prevention requires innovative tools. One is a bipartisan bill recently proposed in Congress that would separate those struggling with suicidal thoughts from the weapon most likely to make a suicide attempt fatal: guns.
I should know. I was 19 when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Darkness has hovered over me my entire adult life. Depression and suicidality swirl together like a cloud of rain, waiting to pour out. I look up, hoping my life won’t fall apart. Most days this is not the case. Most of the time, I’m fine. Most of the time I go to work and try to prevent other people from committing suicide. But sometimes I get sick. And when I’m sick, I often think of methods I could use to kill myself. When I am dangerously ill, I research these methods in depth.
In those moments, I was lucky and got help that saved my life. During periods of acute suicidality, I received inpatient psychiatric treatment on several occasions. Too many others never do. In 2020, nearly 46,000 people died by suicide.
I take precautions to prevent and deal with dark times. It is easier to prepare in advance for periods of illness. But even after 12 years of managing this disease, I still don’t experience a mood swing. Often, I feel like I only see the signs in hindsight. It’s more difficult to face those moments when I’m not well, when I don’t think clearly.
When I’m well, I want nothing more than to preserve my peace, protect my life, and fend off the suicidal urges that the sick version of myself feels compelled to act on. For me and others like me, there is a need for tools to help us prevent suicidal crises while our minds are clear and calm.
That’s where Bill HR 8361 comes in. The bipartisan bill, introduced in July, is known as the Prevention of Suicide Through Voluntary Purchase of Firearms Act. This would allow individuals to voluntarily put themselves on a federal do-not-buy list, preventing them from purchasing firearms from an authorized dealer. The bill would require the Attorney General to establish and maintain a secure database on the Internet, separate from other databases in the national instant criminal background check system. This would be known as the “Voluntary Purchase Delay Database”.
If someone later wished to withdraw from the database, they could do so after a 21-day waiting period – a safeguard against the impulsiveness that sometimes characterizes suicide attempts. As currently drafted, the bill also includes a more controversial provision that would allow individuals to be discharged after 24 hours with a note from a mental health professional.
The law on the prevention of suicide by the voluntary purchase of firearms is not without precedent. three states – Utah, Virginia and Washington – currently have similar voluntary self-ban laws. Washington’s law went into effect in 2019, Utah’s and Virginia’s in 2021. Because the laws are new, data on the effectiveness of voluntary self-banning is limited, but project sponsors of federal law — Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) — represents two of the states with such laws on the books, indicating confidence in the model.
People like me, who recognize that they are prone to suicide, need this act. Research shows that access to firearms increases the risk of suicide. By allowing individuals to pre-emptively put a barrier between themselves and the deadliest method, we can save lives. This bill would give people prone to suicide the agency to make decisions about their own access to firearms during times when they are not actively suicidal.
I have mental clarity most of the time, but I know the storms will return. I want to have the ability to anticipate crises. I want to have the ability to protect myself from the version of me that doesn’t think clearly. People prone to suicidal thoughts and behaviors need this bill, which allows us to protect ourselves from our discomfort. We need this policy, which gives us the agency to make preventive decisions about our own health.
Please give us the tools to preserve our lives.