Individuals can now obtain free cable and trigger firearm locks as well as locking medication boxes from the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board as part of a “Lock and Talk” program launched recently launched by the Suicide Prevention Alliance of Northern Virginia.
Overseen in Fairfax County by the CSB’s Wellness, Health Promotion, and Prevention program, Lock and Talk aims to reduce suicides caused by guns and poison by giving people the means to restrict access to firearms and medications that they may have in their house.
“Time and distance are incredibly effective in helping to prevent suicide, because when somebody is feeling suicidal, there's an impulsivity that takes place,” CSB Wellness, Health Promotion and Prevention program manager Marla Zometsky said. “…Even a few moments where there's a barrier to quickly being able to use the firearm or to accessing the poison, those few seconds can save a life.”
Suicide has ranked as the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. since 2008 with 44,965 deaths recorded in 2016, a rate increase of nearly 30 percent since 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the Virginia Department of Health’s Virginia Violent Death Reporting System, Virginia sees an average of 916 suicides per year with 2.4 suicides annually for every homicide, and suicide rates have increased over the past 10 years.
A CDC report on suicide rate trends released in June 2018 found that firearms are used in 48.5 percent of cases, making them the most common method of suicide, followed by suffocation at 28.9 percent and poison, which is used in 14.7 percent of all incidents.
A study conducted by researchers with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in 2000 indicated that firearms are a particularly lethal suicide method with an 82.5 percent fatality rate. By comparison, drug or poison ingestion is fatal in 1.5 percent of cases.
Virginia’s Lock and Talk program originated with local community services boards in the Virginia Department of Health’s Health Planning Region One, which covers the southwestern part of the state.
Now, supported by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services the program has spread to all of the state’s community services boards, which provide services for people with mental health issues, substance use disorders, and developmental disabilities.
The Fairfax-Falls Church CSB is purchasing firearm locks and medication boxes from vendors using funding allocated by the Department of Behavioral Health specifically for Lock and Talk, along with some money that the agency receives through state grants targeting the opioid epidemic.
Through the Suicide Prevention Alliance of Northern Virginia, Fairfax County is coordinating its Lock and Talk efforts with Prince William, Loudoun, and Arlington Counties as well as the City, Alexandria.
That partnership allows all of the region’s jurisdictions to collaborate on raising awareness of the program and to ensure that the same messaging and materials are delivered to all residents.
“In Northern Virginia, people may live and work in different jurisdictions,” Zometsky said. “You might live in Fairfax County but work in Arlington County, and you're going to hear…the same information about the importance of locking up your gun, locking your medication, and talking about mental health and talking specifically about suicide prevention.”
All of the CSB’s prevention offices and staff will have gun locks and lock boxes to distribute, but since the program is still rolling out to different sites, Zometsky recommends that anyone interested in obtaining one of the devices contact the prevention team first by sending an email to email@example.com.
In addition to managing Lock and Talk, the CSB’s Wellness, Health Promotion, and Prevention program provides online youth suicide prevention training, mental health screenings, and mental health first aid instruction.
Zometsky says that, along with helping people keep firearms and medication securely stored, the goal of the Lock and Talk program is to educate the community in recognizing and responding to possible warning signs that someone may be at risk of suicide and to encourage people to seek help if needed.
According to the CDC, there are 12 main warning signs of suicide including extreme mood swings, isolation, increased anxiety or anger, abnormal sleeping patterns, increased substance use, and expressions of hopelessness, feeling like a burden, or wanting to die.
Zometsky notes that seemingly positive changes in behavior can be red flags as much as negative ones, for instance, if someone experiencing depression suddenly appears intensely cheerful.
“It might be an indication that the person has made a decision…about taking their life,” Zometsky said. “That can sometimes be confusing for people, because if you’re in a family, you have wanted your loved one to be better and feel better.”
Zometsky emphasizes that resources are available to provide help.
PRS CrisisLink operates a 24/7 national crisis and suicide prevention hotline that can be reached by calling 703-527-4077 or 1-800-273-TALK, or texting the word “CONNECT” to 855-11.
The Fairfax-Falls Church CSB recommends in cases where there is an immediate life-threatening emergency that people call 9-1-1 and ask for a crisis intervention team officer.