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In A Culture That Loves Guns, How Do You Talk About Suicide?

Photo of Robin Hatch.
Erik Neumann / KUER
Prevention Specialist Robin Hatch talks with attendees at the Vernal Knife and Gun Show at their suicide prevention booth.

A gun show may not be the first place you would expect to talk about suicide prevention — especially in Vernal, Utah, where firearms are deeply embedded in the local culture.  

But on a recent Friday, at the Vernal Knife and Gun Show in northeastern Utah, Robin Hatch and three other women stood behind a booth for the Northeastern Counseling Center with exactly that in mind. Amid a maze of tables displaying brightly varnished rifle stocks, the occasional AR-15 assault rifle and the sound of airsoft guns popping in the background, they waited ready to talk with the show’s attendees.

“Lethal access to lethal means makes a difference. Suicide attempts by any other means are less lethal,” said Hatch, a prevention coordinator with Northeastern Counseling for nearly 23 years.

Photo of gun socks.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER
Gun socks with the national suicide prevention lifeline from Northeastern Counseling Center.

Utah has one of the highest death by suicide rates in the country, currently ranked sixth. According to the Utah Department of Health, suicide rates in the tricounty area are 58% higher than the rest of the state. This area also has significantly more suicide deaths from firearms than the rest of Utah, according to the health department. A major factor is the easy access to firearms in a state where guns are a big part of the culture. Hatch and her colleagues are tasked with negotiating this prickly question of how to talk about the at-times polarizing issues of suicide and guns.

This was the first time Northeastern Counseling had done outreach at a gun show. At their booth they gave out free gun locks — a cable that threads into a gun to prevent bullets from being loaded — and gun socks, water-resistant firearm sleeves that are screen printed on the outside with the national suicide prevention hotline.

“Anything that we can do to get people off track a little bit, thinking something different. We believe that will help make a difference in our suicide rates,” Hatch said.

Unpredictable Employment Adds Stress

Photo of prevention booth.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER
Prevention Specialist Robin Hatch talks with attendees at the Vernal Knife and Gun Show at their suicide prevention booth.

The tricounty area of northeast Utah spans Daggett, Uintah and Duchesne Counties. It’s home to oil and gas fields, cattle ranches and the Ouray and Uintah Indian Reservations. Health experts say factors contributing to the high suicide rates include limited access to mental health services in these rural communities and the unpredictability of working in ranching and oil and gas. Before the gun show Northeastern Counseling visited the Duchesne County Beef Expo to try reaching local farmers. The boom-bust cycles and physical and mental stress take a similar toll on oil and gas workers.

“Injuries and accidents, keeping your job, having a job tomorrow. It’s so up and down,” said Val Middleton, a former oil and gas safety instructor at Uintah Basin Technical College in Vernal. “The guys don’t eat right typically. No exercise, hard work, long hours, no sleep. That’s what adds up. The divorce rate is high. Really high. The family life is low.”

Add high gun ownership, and the results can be deadly.

“There’s not too many families in this area that hasn’t had some kind of suicide affect their life,” said Duchesne County Sheriff Travis Tucker. He says topics like depression and suicide aren’t talked about because of a fear of having guns taken away.

“I am the Duchesne County Sheriff and I am here for your constitutional rights — your Second Amendment, your Fourth Amendment — but we need to talk about things as well,” Tucker said.

To advance this conversation, Hatch and her colleagues use the analogy of drinking and driving with visitors.

“If you’re worried about a friend, you can legally store their firearms for them at your home for a few days,” she tells a visitor at their table. “We kind of put it out there like, if you had a friend who was consuming too much alcohol you’d take away their car keys. You wouldn’t even hesitate.”

Not Just A Rural Issue

Photo of gun display.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER
Guns for sale at the Vernal Knife and Gun Show in Vernal, Utah.

How to talk about suicide by guns isn’t just an issue in rural parts of Utah. It’s a topic that state Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, has also negotiated. Eliason has taken the lead on sponsoring legislation focused on firearms, suicide prevention and mental health services. Some of it is personal.

“I’ve lost three extended family members to suicide. All firearm suicides. Young men,” Eliason said.

In 2019 he worked on bills to fund firearm safety and suicide prevention programs, supply gun locks, create new mental health treatment programs and expand crisis response in rural Utah.

Eliason describes these issues as nonpartisan, but with Utah’s proud gun culture, he’s also careful with his approach. He describes advice he got from a politically liberal friend in public health about how to bring together opposing perspectives about firearms.

Photo of rifle.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER
Gun sellers at the Vernal Knife and Gun Show in Vernal, Utah.

“Obviously there’s kind of two schools of thought on firearms. Those two schools of thought, if they were circles, they would overlap into a small oval. That oval is the culture of safety. And she says ‘I would recommend that you dwell within that oval.’ That’s what I’ve tried to do,” he said.

That perspective led to an unlikely partnership between the Harvard School of Public Health and the Utah Shooting Sports Council last year to study firearm violence in Utah. It was the basis of at least one of Eliason’s 2019 bills.

Like Eliason’s work at the state policy level, Hatch’s suicide prevention work in her community depends on trust.

Their table at the gun show was less busy than others. But they gave out piles of gun locks and stacks of gun socks over the course of the day. And attendees said having them there was a fitting way to talk about suicide and firearms.

“You need to know your community and you need to address it in a way that your community will accept it,” Hatch said.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the Utah Crisis Line at 801-587-3000 or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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