May 23, 2022 Blog

Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time dedicated to raising awareness, fighting stigma, and discussing ways to support the millions of people living with mental illness and their families. This year, three years into the many challenges brought on by the pandemic, raising awareness about mental health is more essential than ever. 

Opponents of gun safety laws often claim that gun violence is a mental health problem, arguing incorrectly that mental illness—not easy access to firearms—is at the root of the more than 45,000 gun deaths each year. 

The truth is people living with mental illness are far more likely to be the victim of gun violence than the perpetrator. Research shows that most mental health issues—anxiety, stress, depression, PTSD, and borderline personality disorder—have little association with gun violence. Access to guns, however, is strongly tied to aggressive firearm behavior. It makes sense then that while other similar countries experience the same level of mental illness as the United States, none experience anywhere near the same levels of gun violence.

This month brought a high-profile reminder of just how important raising awareness and fighting stigma around mental health is when the family of the singer-songwriter Naomi Judd shared that she died by gun suicide. They shared the news publicly in the hopes of raising awareness about gun suicide, which claims more than 24,000 lives in the United States every year. Gun violence accounts for 60 percent of gun deaths nationally and 75 percent of gun deaths in Washington state. 

But firearm suicide is preventable. Access to a firearm at home increases the risk of suicide threefold. Removing access to firearms works to prevent suicide. Guns are by far the most lethal means of suicide, with nearly 9 in 10 attempts being fatal. But the vast majority of people who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide, which means saving a life in the short term by securing firearms often means saving a life in the long term. 

Invoking mental health as a cause of gun violence stigmatizes mental illness and can interfere with individuals seeking treatment. Instead, policies can be adopted that remove the threat of firearms from at-risk individuals and allow time to seek treatment or recover safely. 

In Washington state, for example, policies like Extreme Risk Protection Orders and voluntary waivers empower individuals or their loved ones to take action to temporarily remove the threat of firearms. These are effective suicide prevention safeguards. Similarly, our state has policies that prohibit firearm possession among individuals subject to involuntary 72 hour holds or individuals found incompetent to stand trial with a history of violent behavior. 

Individuals in crisis in King County, WA should call 866-427-4747 or text 2-1-1 to be connected to Crisis Connections. Outside King County, individuals should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

Learn more about the suicide prevention policies in place in Washington.

Find a place outside the home to safely store a firearm.

Diverse mental health resources (Washington state and national).

— Kristen Ellingboe is Communications Manager at the Alliance.