Our kids are returning to school in the midst of not only a lingering pandemic but also a mental health crisis and record gun sales, a potentially deadly mix that we as parents must acknowledge.
This summer, Children’s Hospital Colorado issued its first state of emergency for pediatric mental health in its 113-year history, warning, “Suicide is the leading cause of death for Colorado kids, ages 10+, and is putting more kids in our emergency care than ever before.”
If you’re a parent with guns in your home or your kids visit homes with guns, please consider talking to your children. I wish I had.
We never had a gun in our home until our first-born son, Patrick, turned 18. He was a history buff and had a particular interest in the Civil War. One of his favorite days was when he was chosen by Robert E. Lee to serve in the Confederate Army during a re-enactment at the age of 13. We vacationed in Gettysburg, where he, his younger brother, and father ran up the same long slope of the climactic Pickett’s Charge.
During that same vacation, my cousin took the boys target shooting and let them fire his vintage guns. He also gave them a stern lecture about gun safety and safe storage.
Just after Patrick’s 18th birthday, he bought a long gun at Walmart; he also bought a gun safe. I did not want guns in our house. But my husband argued that it was something that Patrick was really interested in, and he had the gun safe, so there was no risk to the family. Patrick proceeded to collect guns throughout his 18th year. I never gave it much thought.
Patrick and his friends would target shoot in the national forest outside of Evergreen. He enjoyed the time in the mountains with his friends. I never saw the guns except when he was carefully transporting them from the gun safe to the trunk of his car for those outings.
Everything changed when Patrick became suicidal because he believed the girl that he was trying to break up with was pregnant. Their exchange is documented because it all happened on instant messaging. He was threatening suicide (not the first time they had talked about it, according to the chat thread) and she challenged him to complete suicide. She said that she didn’t believe that he would actually do it, that in fact no one did.
Then she named his friends by name. At that point Patrick unlocked the gun safe and used that cheap long gun to complete suicide. We never heard the shot ring out from our basement.
This terrible outcome was totally preventable if an 18-year-old could not have bought a gun! It is infuriating and sad, and this tragic death was totally preventable.
We must do more to protect our children from needless gun deaths. Even before the pandemic, firearms were the leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 19 in Colorado, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half, 59%, of those deaths are suicides.
Our state has made some good strides with recent laws that, for example, require guns be safely stored around children. But more can be can and should be done, including ensuring there is widespread awareness and enforcement of these laws. Colorado could also join the states requiring threat assessment teams to help schools identify students who are at risk of committing violence and getting them appropriate treatment.
Until then, parents need to know that there is support for them as they try to keep their children safe. The Be Smart program provides tools to help parents talk with their kids and other parents about gun safety. Safe to Tell Colorado provides an anonymous hotline where students and adults can report their concern about the mental health and physical safety of students throughout Colorado. QPR Institute provides training in the three steps that anyone can learn to help prevent suicide: Question. Persuade. Refer.
Above all else, keep the lines of communication open with your child. You want them to come to you with their problems before they rise to the level of suicidal thoughts or behavior.
Terri Taylor Straut lives in Littleton. September is Suicide Prevention Month.